Review: Flight of the Blue Whale - Pointed Man Band

Flight of the Blue Whale album cover

Flight of the Blue Whale album cover

When you look at the Amazon page for Flight of the Blue Whale, the second album from Portland, Oregon's Pointed Man Band, here are the three genres in which Dan Elliott (who in the great indie rock tradition has taken on a band nom de plume for his music) has slotted the album:

- Children's Music

- Avant Garde & Free Jazz

- Miscellaneous

That, readers, is a review -- and an accurate one -- in seven words.  Oh, were we all able to be so concise!  But citations of Amazon genre categorizations are not why you visit this site, so onward I press.

In my review of the debut Pointed Man Band album Swordfish Tango from 2013, I wrote that the album was a "combination of Tom Waits and Shel Silverstein, the Beatles and Parisian cafes, the music [smelling] of hardwood floors and flannel and wood construction blocks."  The follow-up is both slightly more mainstream and weirder, if that's possible.

Flight of the Blue Whale tells a story in song of a red fox who operates a small clock and watch repair shop, comes home to find moles invading his garden and the town, and goes off on an adventure to... well, it ends with a flight of a blue whale.  What happens in that ellipsis is, frankly, a little confusing and I don't even really think that's the point.  Bottom line, the more conventional narrative drive of the story -- whose moral is about taking time to dream and not just work -- is just a structure on which to hang these songs.

And the songs are just as odd as their predecessors.  The album kicks off with perhaps the most straightforward track, "Red Fox," an indie-pop tune featuring an infectiously catching organ motif, but from that track, we move on to the stomping sound of "Moles on Parade" and the accordion-drenched near-instrumental "Valse de Taupier," one of a couple waltzes on the album.  Sometimes Elliott sounds like Tom Waits (as on "Moles" and "Baleen Curse"), but more often his voice will remind listeners of a certain age and sensibility of David Byrne, as on careening "The Plan" and the modern big band sound of "Tunneling to Paradise."  The title track (another instrumental) sounds like a Parisian cafe dragged begrudingly out to the seaside.

The 33-minute album will be most appreciated by kids ages 5 through 9.  You can listen to the album here.  (I also think the album artwork from Brooke Weeber is lovely and complements the album and story itself.)

Flight of the Blue Whale is most definitely not an album that will please all listeners.  It is, as I've noted, a little confusing in places, esoteric in its musical choices -- it's not eager to please.  It is, however, joyful and all those things I just mentioned are also its strengths.  Some kids and families will adore this album -- they are the families who probably really liked Wes Anderson's take on The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  (Note: We were one of those families.  This album is in some sense a spiritual sequel to it.)  So, not for everyone, but maybe for you.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review.

Review: The Start of Things - Alison Faith Levy

The Start of Things cover

The Start of Things cover

Kids' music in the 1960s -- that is to say, kids' music before there was even a name for it -- basically took the folk music path that was one of the dominant musical strains of the era.  For Pete Seeger and Ella Jenkins, there was some distinction between folk music for adults and that for kids, but it was a distinction more of presentation than of subject matter.  And that folk music orientation was basically the default kids' music option through the '80s if not the '90s until the kindie wave swept through at the start of the 21st century.

Imagine, however, if other musical strains of the decade -- psychedelic pop, Phil Spector's Wall of Sound production -- also found themselves working their way into kids'  music with songs for the youngest listener.  Were that to have been the case, Alison Faith Levy's brand-new album The Start of Things would be a stellar example of that alternate reality rather than sounding so unique in today's kindie landscape.

Levy first came to the attention of the kids' music world as a member of the Bay Area band The Sippy Cups, which started out as a kid-friendly cover band for the music of the '60s and '70s before gradually becoming a band which wrote its own psychedelic-inspired kindie pop.  The band had been on hiatus for several years before Levy released her first solo album, World of Wonder, in 2012.  While there were echoes of the Sippy Cups' psychedelic and Wall of Sound production on that first solo album, it's much more pronounced on The Start of Things.  The opening title track features a groovy organ, horns, and the theme of how it's OK to be nervous when tackling a new project (first day of school, opening night of a play, etc.).  It's my favorite track on the album, just a great pop song for kids that a lot of adults might sneak into their own playlists.

The track "Pull Your Weeds" envisions a friendship between Cinderella and Snow White and the empowering lyric (printed on the inside of the CD package, so clearly resonant with Levy) "Do your thing / Love what you do / Appreciate your beauty / Pull your weeds and / Stand your ground / And the world will come around."  While "The Start of Things," Pull Your Weeds," and songs like "Rainbow Tunnel" and "Little Dreamer" sound like they could easily be part of a musical Levy is working on based on World of Wonder.

Other songs, however, are rooted more in interactivity -- the raucous "Are You Happy?" runs through a series of emotions that the kid-listeners are encouraged to mimic.  The "Ballad of Boo Ghosty" is a silly little story about a ghostly friend, while "The Froggy Dance" is a nonsense poem.  Given these tracks, the 32-minute album will be most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 6, though some of the songs mentioned earlier in the review have a slightly older age range.

The Start of Things has a '60s-inspired sound, but it still sounds fresh.  That colorful and rainbow-adorned album cover nails the vibe of Levy's bright and empowered songs.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review.

Review: Tiny Destroyer - Keith Munslow

Tiny Destroyer album cover

Tiny Destroyer album cover

I've listened to Keith Munslow's new album Tiny Destroyer album several times now, and I have been having difficulty putting my finger on exactly what it is that appeals to me about this album, and Munslow's work generally.

Maybe the problem is that if I write it down, it sounds pretty prosaic.  Here goes:

Keith Munslow writes good songs with humor, and plays them well.

Yeah, it doesn't sound any more relevatory written down than it did in my head.  But just because something is boring doesn't make it any less true.

Take the leadoff track, "Coffee Breath," an ode -- or anti-ode, really -- to a parent's love of coffee.  The narrator child complains about his parent's breath while underneath Corey Pesaturo plays some pretty amazing accordion for a Argentian/Rhode Islandan tango.  On Munslow moves through musical genres -- the doo-wop of "Intelligent Clam" (about, well, a bivalve with brains), the jazz swing of "Seeing Monkeys," the martial strut of "Tiny Destroyer" -- telling stories that should provide a grin if not outright laughs.  "Knocks the knickknacks from their nooks" from the title track isn't an objectively funny line, but it's a perfect one.  Tiptoeing around a sleepy dad, kids hopped up on sugar, riding a bike ("Magic Bike," one of a couple songs not going for the laugh), these aren't uncommon topics for the genre, but they're sharply executed.  I realize that my personal favorite, "The Last Chicken Wing," might not match up with the preference of the 7-year-old, because Munslow's underplaying of a dramatic piano ballad about who's going to eat the last piece from an order of wings is subtle, but that 7-year-old will appreciate it when she's older.

Munslow doesn't spend the entire album going for yuks.  He also performs a couple longer stories (7 and 10 minutes long) -- "Old Joe's Bones" is gently scary and foreboding, while "Princess Pepper's Story" is a bit of self-empowerment.  And "I Can Still Say I Love You," which closes out the album, is a little bit of "Cat's in the Cradle" for the 21st century (but loving instead of depressing).

The 48-minute album will be most enjoyed by kids ages 5 through 9 (and by new parents of infants and toddlers).  As a side note, I thought the physical copy was one of the nicer packages in terms of layout and design -- by no means elaborate, I just thought Denise J.R. Bass' design, fearing Eric Fulford's illustrations, neatly captured the songs and stories within.

Munslow is now a parent and has perhaps an entirely new perspective on parenthood.  In addition's to his numerous gigs, he's led a variety show for a number of years.  Parenthood + a little bit of theatricality + excellent musician = a bunch of fun.  Simply said, Tiny Destroyer is my favorite Munslow album to date.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I received a copy of this album for possible review.

Review: Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! - Lloyd H. Miller

Glory Glory Hallelujah

Glory Glory Hallelujah

If I told you that Lloyd Miller recorded an entire album about Civil War characters (in many meanings of that last word), you should not be surprised one bit.  This most history-obsessed of kids musicians has been recording songs about the famous and the infamous and those who aren't known well enough to be either from almost the very beginning of his band The Deedle Deedle Dees.

But he's never been as focused on a single period as he is on his new solo album Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!, subtitled An Introduction to the Civil War Era for Kids.  It's labeled as Volume 1 of Miller's new Sing-A-long History project, suggesting listeners will get to hear more deep dives into history, which plays into Miller's interest in hearing from all the personalities.  One might expect a Civil War-based album to feature lots of songs about Lincoln, but the Great Emancipator is more of a side character -- aside from a setting of Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" (a duet with Marianne Tasick) and a recording of the Gettysburg Address featuring more than a dozen folks, Lincoln doesn't really make an appearance.

Instead, the album is more interested in characters like Baldy, the horse of Union General George Meade, whose head is mounted on the wall in a Philadelphia Museum, who get a song ("Baldy") to themselves.  (That one's an old Dees track, re-recorded here.)  Or Harriet Jacobs, a slave who escaped from her master, but who lived "Trapped in the Attic" for seven years before making it safely to freedom in the north.  (It's an awesome, urgent song.) "Weeksville" introduces listeners to one of the first free black communities in the United States, founded in Brooklyn before the Civil War.  It's not that Miller isn't interested in the War itself -- John Brown makes an appearance, as do songs of the time like "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd," "Marching Through Georgia," and "Tenting on the Old Campground."  But Miller would rather sing through the voices of the people whose voices haven't been drilled into our brain over the past 150 years, the slaves and soldiers (and, er, the horses), but use more modern sounds -- rock and hip-hop, for example -- to do so.

The 38-minute album will be most appropriate for listeners ages 7 and up.  You can listen to four tracks from the album here.  I also recommend the curriculum guide (a first draft can be downloaded here), which features lyrics, historical background, and suggestions for classroom activities and further reading.

Because of its slightly narrow focus, Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! won't be to everyone's tastes, certainly all the time.  But Miller gets credit for introducing the familiar big picture story of the Civil War through newer, less familiar lenses.  His enthusiasm for the material shines through, giving new voices to old voices, which lifts this above many educational albums in terms of appropriateness in a broader context (e.g., the minivan).  Highly recommended for the classroom setting, but recommended for all.

Note: I was provided a copy of the album for possible review.

Review: Big Block Singsong Volume One and Big Block Singsong Greatest Hits

Big Block Singsong Greatest Hits

Big Block Singsong Greatest Hits

After I listened to and watched Big Block Singsong’s album (Big Block Singsong Greatest Hits) and DVD (Big Block Singsong Volume One) a couple times, my first question was “Why have I not heard of these before?”  I initially assumed that the fact it was a (relatively new) Disney Junior show meant that I was just out of the TV loop.

Turns out that the delightful series of 2-minute music videos date back to 2009, when Canadian illustrator Warren Brown and composer Adam Goddard (now Goddard/Brown) first unleashed Big Box Singsong, as it was then known, onto the world.  (No such thing as an overnight sensation, right?)  So I have nobody to blame but myself for not knowing about the videos until their move to CBC, Disney Junior, and Nick Jr. in the UK and inevitable worldwide conquest.  Now there are 59 videos, 49 of which are the Season 1 pile which provide the 24 songs drawn for the album and DVD.  I, for one, welcome our new big block overlords.

What’s the concept?  Each video episode is about 2 minutes long and features an animated rectangular block with big eyes and mouth singing about a topic, usually themselves.  “Monkey”?  A gray-brown block with long arms singing about all the things he’s going to do meaning that it’s going to be a “two-banana day.”  It’s almost a celebration.  “Octopus”?  A red-brown block with eight tiny dangling legs.  The songs run the genre gamut, from folk (“Monkey”) to AutoTuned funk (“Sleep”) to Smile-era Beach Boys (“Nose”) to Queen (“Junk Food”).  The lyrics have a light touch and a sense of humor, with very little didactic “do this” guidance.

Big Block Singsong Volume One DVD

Big Block Singsong Volume One DVD

The videos are inherently humorous (it’s a square monkey, after all), but the lyrics sometimes offer opportunities for visual jokes.  You don’t need the visuals to enjoy the music, but there are definitely some videos (“Sleep,” for one) that add an extra layer of enjoyment.  While there's a unified animation style, of course, the different video and song concepts mean that if your kid is bored with one song, hang on, there'll be an entirely different one on shortly.

The music and videos are most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 6, but both music and videos (especially the videos) will probably tickle the funnybone of kids (and adults) considerably older than that.  The album and DVD are each roughly 45 minutes in length (with the DVD available with a French-language option of course).  You can get a complete list of places to watch the videos here, which includes the kid-friendly Disney Junior page.

The most difficult question may be, “if I get only one, which do I get?”  Sixteen of the songs including “Nose,” Sleep” and “Mad” are on both the album and DVD.  The advantage of the DVD is that you get the visuals in a format that doesn’t require an internet connection.  The advantage of the album is that you get the incredibly-awesome “Princess,” a track which doesn’t appear on the DVD, and, potentially, portability via CD or mp3 player.  If you don’t need multiple languages on the video, the cheapest and perhaps the easiest combination might be to get the standard-definition version of the 24 videos on the DVD via iTunes for just $6.99 and download “Princess” as an individual mp3 track.

So, yeah, I’m late to the party, but better late than never.  Big Block Singsong is ten tons of fun.  After listening and watching, your kids’ll probably have a two-banana day, too.  Both the album and the DVD are highly recommended.

Note: I received an electronic copy of the album and physical copy of the DVD for possible review.

Welcome, NPR Listeners and Fans of Happy and Wistful Arboreal-Based Music

Molly Ledford & Billy Kelly - Trees

Molly Ledford & Billy Kelly - Trees

I'm a longtime fan of Molly Ledford's band Lunch Money and Billy Kelly's band, er, Billy Kelly, so when I heard that Molly Ledford and Billy Kelly were doing an album together, I was excited.

Luckily, the album -- Trees -- exceeded my expectations, and I thought a broader subsection of the world should know about it.

So I reviewed it on NPR.

Which may be why you're here.  Or perhaps you just refresh this site a lot.  (Bless you!)  In any case, make sure you check out my interview with Molly and Billy, this video for "The National Tree of England," and the album's stream.  And then check out the rest of the site.