Review: The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra / Jubilee!

Two books, two very different celebrations of two very different men from Candlewick Press.  Or how very different were they?


Jubilee! features the subtitle One Man's Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace, and from that wordy subtitle you may not be surprised that the book focuses on a story from the last part of the nineteenth century, when florid descriptions ruled the day.  Author Alicia Potter recounts the story of Irish-born bandleader Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, creator of the National Peace Jubilee in 1869, which he conceived of to celebrate the return of peace at the end of the Civil War.

I was completely unaware of Gilmore and his Jubilee, and so I found that Potter does a good job of maintaining narrative tension in the story.  If you, too, are unfamiliar, after reading the story you might wonder why, as it involved the construction of a building (the Temple of Peace) which stood 500 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 100 feet tall at its highest point.  Or you might be amazed that a concert featuring a thousand musicians (including a hundred firemen hammering time on anvils) and ten thousand singers has faded from historical view.  Potter's text is accompanied by clear, detailed illustrations from Matt Tavares, who nicely captures both the small-scale scenes (Gilmore, awake at night from worry about whether the concert will come off) and the very large-scale scenes.

Jubilee! will be most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9 (the text itself is probably more for kids in 2nd grade on up, but the pictures make it appropriate for reading to those younger than that).  While the Jubilee itself was a celebration of peace, this book is a celebration of grand plans and the ability of music to capture the imaginations of tens of thousands of people.


America has long been a nation of immigrants who've fully embraced, and been embraced by, their new country -- see Gilmore, above -- but does that apply to those who visit from other planets?  Two-time Caldecott Medal winner Chris Raschka's new book The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra captures in impressionistic illustrations the life of Herman P. "Sunny" Blount.  If you know Blount, you probably know him as Sun Ra, the musician and poet (among other things) who claimed that he was from Saturn.

As Raschka writes in the start of the book, "No one comes from Saturn.  And yet.  If he did come from Saturn, it would explain so much."  The story Raschka tells is of a person who fully embraced life and the many opportunities in America.  He played piano, leading his own ensemble before leaving high school, and was one of the first musicians to use electronic keyboards.  His band, the Arkestra, made its own clothes.

If it seems like Ra was a little out of the mainstream, you'd be right, and Rashka's text celebrates that "follow your own drummer" path without glossing over the difficulties (one of my favorite lines in the book: "One disadvantage of coming from Saturn, though, was that Sun Ra could never really understand or care too much about money.  The New York landlords, on the other hand, did, and kicked the Arkestra out…").  Raschka's watercolor and ink illustrations contain riots of color and feel true to life even if they aren't completely faithful to "real life."  This artistic choice is perfect for Sun Ra, known for his eclectic jazz compositions.

The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra will appeal most to readers ages 6 through 10.  It's not a huge book, dimensions-wise, and the swirls of color rather than precise drawings may make this book better enjoyed side-by-side than shared with a classroom of kids for optimal appreciation.

Both these books celebrate musical heroes whose names will be unfamiliar to kids and probably their parents.  In their own distinct ways, they honor the memories of these two visionaries.  Recommended.

Note: I received copies of both books for possible review.

Review: Gustafer Yellowgold's Wisdom Tooth of Wisdom - Gustafer Yellowgold


First off, no, that's not a misprint -- the sixth Gustafer Yellowgold album really is called Gustafer Yellowgold's Wisdom Tooth of Widsom.  The extra "wisdom" is for, er, wisdom.

Yes, that's a deliberate pose our favorite yellow alien from the sun is striking on the DVD cover, as the story inside deals with his search for wisdom.

As creator Morgan Taylor has run out of the original batch of songs that made up the first few Gustafer DVDs, individual DVDs have become more unified in structure, songs organized around a single principle.  Wisdom Tooth of Wisdom is the first DVD, however, in which I felt like there was something at stake in the story.  Rather than just illustrating a personality quirk (e.g., "I Jump on Cake," still a classic GY song), the songs here help move along a plot that sees Gustafer struggle with giving up something that's important to him and what the true source of wisdom is.  His external journey -- finding the source of the titular tooth -- is matched by an interior journey.

Of course, the heart of any Gustafer DVD is still the music, and it's every bit as '70s-soft-rock-with-a-hint-power-poppy as ever.  (That's a good thing, natch.)  "Telephone Called" is a bit of Broadway jangle-pop, followed by the fuzzed-out and hand-clapped strains of XTC heard in "It Suits You."  (Yes, the DVD case suggests that XTC reference, but darned if it doesn't hit the nail on the head.)  One of my favorite tracks, "Toothloser," sounds to me like Billy Joel at his early '80s narrative best, with "Secret Fox" a wistful follow-up.  Other strong tracks in "I Can't Feel My Face" (shout-out to Billy Shears!) and "Yawn," the first song I've heard that actually tries to be yawn-inducing.  The music might have some odd lyrical references if you're not familiar with the video, but the music isn't dependent on the visuals for your enjoyment.

As always, the animation -- featuring Taylor's own art -- is minimal, more moving picture book, but it's the most technically-proficient video yet, often beautiful to look at.  (There's a scene near the end where somebody's recording a meeting on a cell phone, and you can see the characters on the tiny phone's screen doing exactly what the actual characters are doing.)  The videos themselves have some nice jokes for the adult (or smart kid) to appreciate in addition to the broad humor in many of them.

The video is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 10.  You can watch a preview of the 41-minute DVD here.  The DVD includes a couple bonus features (a 6- minute guitar lesson with Taylor for his hit "Cakenstein" and a 20-minute documentary about the making of the DVD) and more importantly, a 30-minute CD with all 10 songs from the video.

Now that Taylor has been living with Gustafer in his head and on the screen for more than a decade, he's had some time to stretch what he's going with the character and his world.  This is all to the good, and makes me that much more excited about the next Gustafer video, already in the works.  The music is definitely recommended, as good as ever, and the DVD is highly recommended, the best Gustafer Yellowgold video yet.

Note: I was provided a copy of the DVD/CD for possible review.

Review: Animal Tales - Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke


I think Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke are pretty awesome.  From the very first time Wilde e-mailed me a link to some music that would eventually become their 2010 debut Rise and Shine, I've shouted their praises.

Of course, the New York-area duo have been slow, almost agonizingly so, in releasing music into the world.  That 2010 album appeared three years after Wilde first posted his music, and since then they've just released one other full-length, the outstanding Pleased To Meet You, and a Christmas-themed EP.

High expectations plus long waiting period equals for me a recipe for potential disappointment with Animal Tales, the fall 2014 album from the duo.  So if I say this is my least favorite KWMC album, you shouldn't interpret that as "it's a bad album."  On the contrary - Animal Tales is very good.  As you might expect from the album title and cover art, it's a themed album, a baker's dozen of songs about animals with varying amounts of lyrical similitude.  "Bear Song" is a straightforward recitation of the different kinds of bears, while "Armando Armadillo" is a little more fanciful, a song that echoes traditional Mexican music and which gives the title character a wife, a dozen kids (all named), and a job (gardener at a nursery).  The record's most abstract and least "factual" songs, which close out the album -- the instrumental "Hippo Dance" and the parable "Animal Island" -- are my favorites. 

When I try to pinpoint why I didn't react quite as strongly to this album as I have their other work, the best explanation I can come up with is that it's definitely less raucous than their previous albums, with no rave-up song like "Favorite Names," "The Rattling Can," or "Bigga Bagga" in the mix.  It's unfair, I know, to complain that this album is more Johnny Cash than Johnny Rotten just because our family (not just me) has found the punk side of KWMC the side that's stuck in our brains most often.

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 9.  You can listen to the 39-minute album here.  And while the album packaging isn't as elaborate on their debut, that cover art from Wilde himself is again another argument for physical copies of music (or, perhaps, a vinyl-sized mp3 player/smartphone for listeners to explore the illustration).

Would I recommend Animal Tales as the entry point to Key Wilde and Mr. Clarke to a family unfamiliar with them?  No, but that's only because the other two albums have wiggled their way into our families' consciousness so much and because this album gives the punk side of the duo short shrift.  But would I recommend Animal Tales?  Heck yeah.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: Super Audio Sunshine - Todd McHatton


If Dan Zanes coined the phrase "age-desegregated music" for his folk-rock take on traditional songs from across the country (and globe), Southern California's Todd McHatton has taken that attitude and applied it to psychedelic power-pop.  While some of his music has occasionally tapped into a more childlike part of the brain as in his massive kindie hit "I Think I'm a Bunny," which featured the winsomely squeaky monster Marvy Monstone, mostly he's recorded music accessible to all ages.

This doesn't change on his latest album, Super Audio Sunshine.  Sure, Marvy makes his now traditional album appearance, this time on the (happily) existential album closer "Every Little Monster."  But for the most part, the occasional song like "A Slice of Pie" -- yes, it's about eating pie -- which resides squarely in what we might think of as kindie is usually followed immediately by a song like "What Makes Me Smile," which with only the most minor of changes would be a pure pop-rock love song.  (It is a pure pop rock love song, though, to be sure.)

McHatton doesn't alter his sonic approach from past work, either -- "Wonderbuzz" could be a long-lost track from XTC's long-lost kid-friendly album, and songs like "Refreshments on Neptune" and "Giraffe On a Flaming Unicycle" are every bit as far-out as those song titles imply.  As a result, McHatton's music can be an acquired taste and families who prefer their kindie more conventional might not groove to the whole thing.

The album is best suited for kids ages 4 and up, with no real upper age limit (see discussion above); you can stream the entire 41-minute album here.  As McHatton himself noted, he finds it "much more interesting and exciting to write about fantastical, dynamic, bizarre things than to rehash any common, tired, depressing, dark subject matter."  Super Audio Sunshine is another example of that artistic principle at work, and most families will find at least a few songs exercising their bliss muscles.  Recommended.

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

Review: Full Moon, Full Moon - Papa Crow


Michigan-based musician Papa Crow zigs and zags.  His hushed, heartfelt debut Things That Roar was earnest, while the follow-up EP What Was That Sound? was… well, maybe it was heartfelt, too, but it was a heartfelt and fun album about flatulence, so I think you see my point about the zigging and zagging.

Having gotten toots out of his system -- so to speak -- Papa Crow (aka Jeff Krebs) returns to the warmth of his debut with his recent release Full Moon, Full Moon.  If the first album sounded a little bit like it was recorded in the middle of a Michigan winter, this new album has a sunnier, more expansive feeling, like it was recorded over the course of some long Michigan summer days with many friends.

"Moving to the Beat" is a gentle ska-tinged tune featuring organ and saxophone, while "Great White Pine" is straight-ahead bluegrass tune about camping.  If "I Wanna Rock & Roll" starts out softer than I'd expect a song titled that to begin, it ends with a suitably loud riff.  Krebs says the album loosely follows a day in the life of a child from sunup to sunup, so as you'd expect, a lot of the album's second half is mellower -- "Give Some, Get Some," featuring Frances England, is a highlight, as is the title track and "The Michigan Waltz," the latter written by Krebs' grandfather.

You can listen to 3 full songs from the 42-minute album (most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 8) here.  The album is made with evident care and craft, and will again appeal to families who are fans of Frances England, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Dan Zanes, artists who originally inspired Papa Crow.  This album which celebrates the outside world is a worthy successor to both of its predecessors -- more so the debut than the cheekier EP -- and worth checking out regardless of how well you know his music.  Definitely recommended.

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

Itty-Bitty Review: Year-Round Sounds - The Hipwaders


For a reviewer, the beauty of releasing an album loosely themed around different seasonal activities is that regardless of when one gets around to reviewing it, it's still timely.

So let's give it up for the Hipwaders' Year-Round Sounds and its opening track "Mic Check."  Yes, it's literally a song about a mic check -- a short, sharp power-pop song that at 61 seconds packs more hooks in than most songs three times its length -- and not about the new year.  But of course it's a perfect way to start out the year, er, album.  (Perhaps they can conclude their next album with a song called "Mic Drop.")  And if you're looking for another alternative take on the New Year, that's followed up by "Kings & Queens," all about babies and again a perfectly appropriate "start of the year" song.  Onward through the year, covering spring (a cover of "Peter Cottontail" and the swirly "Gaia She Knows"), school ("The Books I Like To Read" and "Smile About"), plus Halloween and Christmas (including an appropriately Bakersfield-y cover of Buck Owens' lost Christmas classic "A Very Merry Christmas").  

The album is most appropriate for kids 4 through 9.  At 14 tracks and 30 minutes in length, the album flies by and if your family doesn't dig one of the songs (or if it's July and and you have no interest in their appropriately Bakersfield-y cover of any Christmas song), another one's coming up shortly.  (Listen to samples via the player at the bottom of this page.)  While it's not quite the classic that the Hipwaders' last album, The Golden State, is, Year-Round Sounds still satisfies.  Fans of the Hipwaders, power-pop, or of noting celebrations big and small will find a lot to like here.  Definitely recommended.

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