Review: Sing As We Go! - Charlie Hope

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Singer-songwriting Charlie Hope has a bright, clear voice that appeals to many ears.  In attitude, temperament, and vocal quality, I've previously compared her to Raffi, and I think the analogy still holds.

On her recent release, Sing As We Go!, Hope continues with the formula that has won her fans on both sides of the Canadian-United States border.  Take a batch traditional songs, mix in a handful of poppy folk originals, add a dash of kindie royalty, and stir.  Hope's voice and producer Dean Jones' unfussy musical choices give a fresh spin to the traditionals.  A simple touch like the toy piano on the old camp chestnut "I Love the Mountains" helps give the song new life to the adult listener who may have heard the song more times than they probably should.  While some of the titles like "When the Ice Worm Nests Again" and "Little Rooster" might not sound familiar, the melodies probably will, with Hope occasionally writing some new lyrics for the songs.

The originals here are lovely -- from the lost '70s AM-radio tune "With You" (co-written and performed by Hope and Gustafer Yellowgold's Morgan Taylor) to Jones' "Harmony" (a duet between Hope and Elizabeth Mitchell) and Hope's own gentle ode to the parent-child bond "From You" -- and feel just as timeless as the actual classics they're next to.  (And speaking of kindie royalty, Molly Ledford, Randy Kaplan, and Chris Ballew aka Caspar Babypants also appear on the album.)

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7.  You can listen to extended clips from each song on the album here.  Also, I happen to find the album art here particularly delightful, an artful mix of hand-drawn, computer-drawn, and knitted illustration from Zooglobble favorite Charlotte Blacker.

I first listened to this album months ago, set it aside as real life took over, and when I came back to it recently in preparation for writing this review, I was struck by just how delightful this is.  It's traditional but not musty, sweet but not cloying, engaging but not pandering.  It's a gem of an album, definitely worthy of a comparison to Raffi.  Highly recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: Just Say Hi! - Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could

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It occurred to me as I listened to Just Say Hi!, the latest album from Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could, that I'm not sure I've ever seen Rymer frown.  I'm sure he must occasionally -- maybe -- but I can't recall anger or frustration when I've seen him play live or at kids music events.  For the most part, it's just a big grin.

Rymer's music for families has typically had that gregariousness, noticeable even in a genre that has more than its fair share of happy, gregarious folk.  On his new album, Rymer doesn't change course as he serves up another 11 tracks of feel-good roots-rock.  It's not that the whole album is butterflies and unicorns, relentless peppy.  Rather, songs like danceable "Just Say Hi!" ("Don't be afraid of the unfamiliar / Look 'em in the eye / Give 'em a smile, and / just say "hi!") and the anthemic "Tomorrow's People" have Rymer's positive attitude baked right in, faces turned toward the sun even when things aren't perfect.  While I could do without the goofy "Pet Song (We Thank You)" because the silly voices sound out of place on the album, for the most part earnest songs like "Red Piano Rag," a ragtime (natch) about Rymer's piano-playing Grandma Helen, or the zydeco-tinged "My Home," stand up to repeated spins.  And of course The Little Band That Could still sounds great.

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 10.   You can hear the 38-minute album here.  Look at that album for Just Say Hi!.  See that big grin on that monster -- that's Rymer's smile in cartoon form.  I think your family will probably be smiling after listening as well.  Definitely recommended.

Review: Aqui, Alla - Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band

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Is there any stopping Lucky Diaz and Alisha Gaddis, the couple at the heart of Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band?  The release a couple months ago of Aqui, Alla marked their sixth album in little more than three years.  That's on top of the TV show, the nonstop touring, and, oh yes, the Latin Grammy for for Best Spanish-language Children's Album for Fantastico!.

The answer, then, is probably no.

Unlike Fantastico!, which almost exclusively featured Spanish-language reworkings of their previous English-language hits, the new album features all new songs (plus "De Colores," because of course).  Diaz and Gaddis returned to team up with Gilbert Velasquez, who produced Fantastico!, and they somehow manage to merge Diaz' natural indie-pop sound with the sounds of Tejano music.  I mean, anytime you can bring in someone like Flaco Jimenez on accordion (on the leadoff track "Viva La Pachanga"), you just sit back and enjoy the result.  While most of the tracks are bouncy, danceable tunes, the album ends on a more mellow note, with the tender "Aqui, Alla" (about the multi-varied backgrounds of many Americans) before finishing with "De Colores," which isn't really a dance song (though Diaz et al. come close to turning it into one).

The one downside to the album -- and it's not going to be a downside for everyone -- is that the album comes with no way for the English-language speaker to bridge the gap between the music and their own experience.  For the Spanish-language speaker, of course, that's not an issue at all, but I found myself wishing that explanations of the songs in the promotional material were included in the album packaging.  You can enjoy the music without knowing a whit of Spanish, and yes, you can find lyrics and translations at Diaz' website -- but I think some of those families would enjoy it more if there were more of a guide right there with the CD.

The brief 26-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8.  You can hear the album here.

I love finding out what Diaz and Gaddis are cooking up next for families who love kids music.  The duo could have totally rested on their laurels with one Spanish-language album and left it at that, but they came back with Aqui, Alla, which is better in almost every way.  It gives me hope that a third album of their hybrid Spanish-language indie-jano (that's "indie" + "Tejano") will grace shelves and iPods at some point.  (And I'd encourage them to do even more to bring us non-Spanish dancers along for the ride.)  Definitely recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: First Songs - Danny Lion

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Dan Flannery may be best known in the kindie world for being half of the well-loved duo the Flannery Brothers, but he has an alter ego as a dandelion-brandishing lion superhero.

Wait, what?  I must've been confused by the album cover.

The Flannery Brothers aren't defunct by any means, but Dan has taken his master's degree in Child Development and job teaching preschool classes and music and turned that into Danny Lion, his very preschool-focused music alter ego.  His debut DL album First Songs from late last year is a half-hour and a dozen songs of genial silliness for your favorite preschooler.  Super-simple -- there's a song about having a "Banana on the Head" that is exactly about that -- but that's the point (and the charm) of the album.  The instrument list includes ukulele, bass, and cajon, and… well, that's it, really.  It's just songs like and "Puppies in Cars" and "Dance Happy" which will, well, put a smile on your and maybe even Pharrell's face.

The album will appeal to kids ages 2 through 6.  You can listen to the whole album here.  This is simplicity done right -- letting the humor and happiness shine through.  Definitely recommended.

Review: Shy Kid Blues - Hullabaloo

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Steve Denyes and Brendan Kremer -- AKA Hullabaloo --have spent more than a decade cultivating their audience in the greater San Diego area with their "free-range, organic kid-folk."  That's their PR description, but it's a pretty accurate one from where I sit, and one they've not strayed far from during their career.

They are not the first band that came to my mind when the phrase "spoken word" pops up, and I suspect even Denyes was unsure of the reaction to Shy Kid Blues, the band's tenth and latest album.  The album intersperses new Hullabaloo tunes between spoken word scenes -- essentially a kid-friendly origin story of the band itself, how Steve and Brendan met, developed a love for music, and started a band together.  It's also the story of how a shy kid -- Denyes (and Kremer, too) -- found the inner strength to conquer shyness and make music onstage.

Now, I am typically not a big fan of spoken word interludes, or musical stories (on record), so I was surprised to discover just how fun this album is.  The dialogue and scenes feel natural, not at all stilted, and the moral -- Kid Conquers Shyness -- is delivered subtly, almost as an afterthought, and with a sense of how things will be different but not totally so.  (Turns out, Denyes is still pretty shy.)  I think the music also benefits from the structure which breaks up the tracks (dialogue is played between each song) and gives Denyes an anchor from which he can write songs in different styles and on different topics.  I've sometimes wished for more variety in the sound of a Hullabaloo album, and this album provides that.  And the final song (save for the reprise), "Like a Bird Must Feel," is genuinely moving in the context of the album.

The 41-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 9 (a slightly older age group than many of the band's albums).  You can hear clips of certain songs here.

In an interview with the site, Denyes noted that he'd previously written and performed 2 one-man musical plays.  Based on the results in the kids' arena with Shy Kid Blues, I think he should  start planning kindie play #2.  It's my favorite Hullabaloo record.  Definitely recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: Zee Avi's Nightlight - Zee Avi

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The Malaysian artist Zee Avi has been making music in public since 2007 when she first posted a recording to YouTube.   Seven years later, she's got three albums under her belt and her fourth, a kid-friendly collection of lullaby-friendly covers titled Zee Avi's Nightlight, spotlights simple arrangements and her slightly husky vocals.

Assuming you clear the initial hurdle of not mangling the music itself -- and Avi and producer Kevin Salem (yay Little Monster Records!) do clear that with plenty of room to spare -- the question becomes what songs do you choose to cover, and do you bring your own style to the song.  On  the latter point, she mostly succeeds -- could you ever hear Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" without McFerrin's mouth-music?  Apparently, yes, you could -- it's an excellent start to the album.  Her take on "Rainbow Connection" is more restrained than Kermit's original version.

As for her song selection, some choices are inspired -- the Velvet Underground's "Who Loves the Sun" and Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" -- but compared to some other lullaby cover albums, the overall selection is more staid.  And while the "Nightlight Medley" is an interesting mix of American and Malaysian lullabies, as an actual lullaby, it doesn't work as well as an actual lullaby.  (The album as a whole might be a touch too active for lullaby-ing.)

As with all lullaby albums, the 31-minute album is targeted at 0 to 4-year-olds and the parents who are desperate for them for fall asleep.  You can hear several songs at Avi's website.  As a lullaby album which for the most part stays solidly in the latter half of the 20th century, Zee Avi's Nightlight will certainly appeal to many modern parents.  While the album isn't the first I'd recommend for families looking to start a lullaby collection, I'd definitely place it ahead of lot of other such albums.  Recommended.

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