Itty-Bitty Review: Put Our Heads Together - Hot Peas 'N Butter

Hot Peas 'N Butter - Put Our Heads Together album cover

Hot Peas 'N Butter - Put Our Heads Together album cover

For about a decade now, the New York-based group Hot Peas 'N Butter have turned out a half-dozen albums of original music most distinctively characterized by a blend of sounds that I'd describe as global in nature.

Their latest album, Put Our Heads Together -- their seventh -- continues in that vein, lending a sound to kids music that is still somewhat unique.  While many other artists tackle a range of styles on a single album, and a handful like Dan Zanes or Mista Cookie Jar or Secret Agent 23 Skidoo will sometimes mix disparate styles on a single song, Danny Lapidus and his band really do blend Latin rhythm, bilingual lyrics, and modern global pop sounds together to create a bright sound.

This new album features uplifting, feel-good lyrics to go along with those bright sounds.  Tracks like album opener "Amistad," a duet with Dan Zanes, feature lyrics in Spanish and English that neatly illustrate the theme of friendship (which is what "Amistad" means in Spanish).  "Magic Elevator" weaves in an elevator "door-opening" sound into its story of a globe-trotting elevator.  "Colores" is another winning pop song.  And it's one of the better kids' albums at incorporating a kids' chorus with out getting too Kidz Bop-py.  I didn't think the album worked as well, though, when the lyrics were too on the nose -- "No Bullies" is too didactic for my tastes, and "Fresh Spokes" jams bike safety tips into a perfectly good song about the diversity of experience.

The 41-minute album will be most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 10.  Lapidus and crew write an effective pop song with a distinctive sound that's still somewhat rare in the kindie scene.  Put Our Heads Together isn't perfect, but there are enough tracks with a fresh, positive sound -- the majority of them, really -- to merit a spin.  Recommended.

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

Review: Great Pretenders Club - The Pop Ups

The Pop Ups - Great Pretenders Club album cover

The Pop Ups - Great Pretenders Club album cover

It's a brave new world in kids music.  I thought that the genre would have a few more years where CDs would be the primary mode of transmitting music (and funding musicians' careers), but if I had a dollar for every kids musician I've heard in the past year or so describing the collapse of their CD sales, I'd have enough money to go down to my favorite local record shop (literally) down the street and buy a couple albums.

As a keen observer of the music industry -- and someone for whom the CD is still my most preferred listening medium -- I, too, am nervous by what appears to be a shift to streaming services, which could lead to viewing music as a commodity.  What happens to commodities?  They're viewed as raw materials, often easily substituted for and by other items, with price being the main victim.  In this scenario, if you're a producer of said "raw materials," that doesn't end well if you take your time with your craft.

Luckily -- maybe -- kids entertainment is one of the battlefields upon which the new streaming entertainment wars are being fought.  Netflix, Amazon, and other SVOD (streaming video on demand) players both major and niche are touting their own independent series and collection of entertainment.  Video isn't the only battlefield -- players like Rhapsody are developing their own special kids' area, it can't be long until Spotify joins in, and folks like batteryPOP are developing a video-channel hybrid focusing on kid-friendly music and entertainment.

You might be wondering, what in the world does this have to do with Great Pretenders Club, the fourth album from the Brooklyn duo The Pop Ups?


You see, Great Pretenders Club is the very first kids' album from Amazon Music (a second kids' album, from Lisa Loeb, will be released in October) and as such it's a trailblazing release.  It's available exclusively from Amazon Music, downloadable as well as in physical format (print-on-demand CD-R).  More intriguingly, it's being marketed primarily as being exclusively available for streaming on their Amazon Prime service.  In other words, selling the album seems to be a minor point -- what's more important is that you can stream it on Amazon... and not on Spotify, Rhapsody, Bandcamp, and so on.  Amazon has entered the kids audio entertainment fray, and they're using kindie to do it.

So often trailblazing releases are notable more for their context than their content, but in the case of Great Pretenders Club, the album's music is every bit as notable as the way it's been introduced to the world.  This is, simply put, one of the year's best albums.  From the minimalist bleeps and and zaps of album opener "Pretend We Forgot" to the trip-hop sound of title track at the very end (featuring HAERTS), Jacob Stein and Jason Rabinowitz give us eleven tracks of '80s drenched pre-K solid gold celebrating imagination and playfulness.  "We Live in an Orchestra" notices and turns into a song the sounds of everyday objects and adds a nifty guitar line and stringed accompaniment.  "On Air" wonders what it would be like to have one's own radio show (with a foam baseball bat), throwing in Duran Duran and Toto references.  "Googly Eyes" has for me a bit of Joe Jackson feel, while the groove of "Indoor Picnic" features in one part a descending melodic part that must be an homage to Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels."  (I also can't believe that the part in "Make a Rainbow" that apes the Fifth Dimension's "Let the Sunshine In" wasn't intentional.)  I particularly dug the crunchy guitars of "Treasure Hunter," about playing hide-and-seek with different objects.  While there isn't a song that is as sublime as "Box of Crayons" or "All These Shapes," there isn't anything remotely close to a weak or even so-so track.

The 38-minute album will be most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7.  You can preview or purchase (and stream if you're an Amazon Prime member) the album here.

A few years from now, the fact that Great Pretenders Club was introduced to the world, Beyonce-style fully-completed, as the first kids music Amazon Music release will have been forgotten.  While Amazon has the market power to significantly change the trajectory of kids music and kindie's relationship to kids music, its ability to do will also determine whether this particular album itself will be forgotten.  Great Pretenders Club is a great album, so don't screw this up, Amazon.  Highly recommended.

Review: !Come Bien! Eat Right! - José-Luis Orozco

José-Luis Orozco ¡Come Bien! Eat Right! album cover

José-Luis Orozco ¡Come Bien! Eat Right! album cover

It is easy to think of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings as the record label of Ella Jenkins, Pete Seeger, and many more who joined the label more than a half-century ago.  But they've also signed up to release recordings from artists not even born when Ella and Pete first started recording -- hi, Elizabeth Mitchell, welcome, Sarah Lee Guthrie!

From that perspective, the fact that Los Angeles-based musician and educator José-Luis Orozco has joined the Folkways fold is both entirely fitting and novel.  If you're not familiar with Orozco's work, then there's a good chance that you haven't been in a classroom with young kids, particularly a classroom with bilingual kids.  Since 1971, Orozco has released 15 albums; his website's biography page says those albums (along with a DVD and 3 songbooks) have sold more than two million copies, and I believe it -- if you look at the iTunes and Amazon best-selling children's music lists, his albums, particularly De Colores and Other Latin American Folk Songs, are often found there.  (That album is one of the very few kids' music albums that my wife, who's taught young kids and in classrooms with lots of bilingual speakers, introduced to me.)

Which brings us to !Come Bien! Eat Right!, Orozco's 16th album and his first distributed through Smithsonian Folkways.  In one sense, it feels completely natural that a musician and educator of Orozco's standing should be part of a record label so committed to celebrating and spreading the folk music of the world here in the United States (and around the world).  And in another sense, you're surprised that this grandfather isn't already part of that family and that it's taken all this time for the two to finally partner.

The album's theme, in case you haven't already guessed it from the title and album cover, is healthy eating.  It features 38 songs, the first 19 in Spanish, followed by the same 19 songs in English translation.  So, for example, the album leads off with "Damos gracias," a simple blessing sung in Spanish and accompanied only by percussion from producer and well-known Latin musician Quetzal Flores -- and then you can fast-forward nineteen tracks to track #20, "Thanksgiving," and listen to the same song (and arrangement) sung in English.

On Orozco moves through the meal -- fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains.  Musically, the accompaniment is generally simple, but I think it shines best when it features other Los Angeles musicians, such as Gabriel Tenorio on the quinto sonero on "La comida en mi plato/The Food on My Plate" or Tylana Enomoto on violin on "Verduras/Veggies," one of my favorite tracks.  There's some call and response on the album featuring a couple of kids, and, of course, "De Colores" makes an appearance, nimbly reworked into a song called "Sabroses colors/Tasty Colors," all about eating fruits and vegetables with healthy colors.  And -- yay! -- "Chocolate," a classic traditional song that's always fun to sing along with.

You might think that this album is "educational," and... it totally is.  I don't speak much Spanish, and so I could listen to the Spanish language tracks and enjoy them, but when I switched to the English-language versions, some of them seemed very... educational and lacking some of the vibrancy I felt on the Spanish-language track.  Now that's OK, but if you -- or your kid -- are expecting something freewheeling, this album isn't that.  There are definitely songs you could pull out and place onto a broader playlist, but as something to listen to 62 minutes straight without an explicit expectation that your family will learn more about healthy eating or learning a different language, it's not designed for that.

The album will be most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7.  I feel almost contractually obligated (note: I'm not) to mention that the album packaging and liner notes are lovely -- in this particular case all the notes are produced in Spanish on one side, and English on the other.    The lovely illustrations are by Elisa Kleven.

Orozco's music has been heard by literally millions of kids, and his new association with Folkways is not the culmination of a career, but just another feather in the cap of a much-beloved and well-respected musician and educator.  It wouldn't be the first choice of mine for an introduction to Spanish-language music, but for educators seeking to broaden their Spanish-language collections or looking for something bilingual to address issues of eating and nutrition, there's a bounty here.  And the rest of us can certainly find a number of tracks to nibble on.  Recommended.

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

Review: Odds & Ends - Andrew & Polly

Andrew & Polly - Odds & Ends album cover

Andrew & Polly - Odds & Ends album cover

Sometimes album titles don't signify much, but in the case of the brand-new album from Los Angeles-based duo Andrew & Polly, I think it's 100% on point.

Just like the random collection of stuff on the shelf on the album cover art, the tracks here are an assortment of tiny treasures and tracks with less heft.  Unlike many albums, in an interview with them, the duo noted that the album reflects a collection of songs they've written and recorded over time.  Sometimes the results are magical -- "Little Bitta You," a previously-released single, is a zippy and sweet folk-pop song, for example.  And their new song "Grapes" is a strong contender for catchiest kindie track of the year, with a singalong chorus filled with "la la las."

At other points, it does feel like one of those "B-Side" collections that your favorite power-pop band might have released after fifteen years together -- your XTCs, your Fountains of Wayne. There are three covers ("Forever Young," "Here Comes the Sun," and my favorite of the three, "Ghostbusters"), for example plus "Critters," their non-religious take on Bill Staines' classic "All's God's Critters" ("got a place in the choir / some sing low / some sing higher...").

Andrew & Polly have been devoting a lot of attention to their podcast for kids Ear Snacks, and some tracks feel very much like excerpts like that.  "Ghostbusters," with a lot of kid-interaction, was sort of a prototype for the podcast, while "Fruitphabet" is a playful thing, more sound-and-word-play than pop song.  At 28 minutes in length, the album's brevity -- it's barely more than an EP -- is one more thing that makes me think of this as a "B-side" collection.

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 6, and I should make clear that my middle-aged perspective on what an album "is" (or isn't) won't matter to the kids, who will sometimes groove and other times laugh to the folky, smart, and weird stuff on Odds & Ends.  Ear Snacks is a genuinely original podcast as well.  Andrew & Polly can write such sharp music, that I'm very much looking forward to the next set of songs from the duo, which they say will be a coherent concept album.  In the meantime, there are some tiny treasures on this album, and those will do just fine.  Recommended.

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

Review: Home - Tim Kubart

Tim Kubart - Home album cover

Tim Kubart - Home album cover

Bless Tim Kubart and his big pop heart.  Whether he's playing his heart out as Tambourine Guy for Postmodern Jukebox or playing with Chica on Sprout's Sunny Side Up Show, the musician and actor dedicates himself to entertaining the viewer and listener to an uncommon degree, even for, well, entertainers.

Kubart's previous albums, a self-titled EP with his band Tim and the Space Cadets and a full-length Anthems for Adventure, contained bits of pop goodness and some tracks that begged to be heard in concert, but on his brand new album Home, out this week, Kubart goes the full pop monty.  You will not hear a kids' music album this year that tries harder to hit pop heights, where you think repeatedly, "Oh, that would be fun to hear on the radio / in concert / on Friday Night Videos."

Luckily, it usually succeeds.  The album title reflects its theme -- songs about life with family and in your home, wherever you and your family call it.  "Breakfast Club" is a song celebrating breakfast, and just typing that, I know, it sounds so basic, but it's so poppy -- handclaps, slinky guitar work, and a nifty rap from Sunny Side Up co-star Carly Ciarrocchi -- that you find yourself singing along to a song, well, celebrating breakfast.  "Showtime" features "Whoas" and "La la las" and a celebration of dressing up a la the Pop Ups' "Costume Party," albeit more uptempo.

On it goes, from the horn-assisted "Sunday Crafternoon," -- I know, that title -- on which Kubart's occasional fellow Postmodern Jukebox musician Drue Davis offers up another rap that by itself makes the song worth it to "Better," which goes all Lumineers on us and features a duet with kindie superstar Laurie Berkner.  I heard echoes of Walk Off the Moon and '80s soundtrack legend Kenny Loggins in "Backyard Swinging," and of Thriller-era Michael Jackson in "Rooms."  If Tim Kubart were female, I'm sure I'd be thinking of female pop juggernauts like Taylor Swift or Carly Rae Jepsen instead.

I can't say that I found the three "Job at the House" interludes -- which sound like commercial jingles for, well, household chores -- very engaging.  And as always been Kubart's wont, his songs (written with longtime musical partner and fellow ex-Jimmies bandmate Matt Puckett) are super-focused on the kids lyrically, with less for the adults to latch onto.  (That's not a criticism, but some families -- i.e., parents -- dig it, and others, less so.)  Having said that, the album opener and closer, "Last Turn Home" and "Moving Day," which both ape fun.'s soaring singalong chorus style, attempt a more emotional approach to the subject of home and where it is and are definitely the two tracks that might appeal equally to a much broader audience on a topical level.

The 37-minute album is most appropriate for listeners 4 through 7, but its modern pop sounds are crafted to have a much broader appeal sonically.  While I've always thought Kubart's music had their share of pop hooks, Home is bursting at the seams with them and is his best effort yet.  As I said, bless Tim Kubart and his big pop heart.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: Meshugana - Joanie Leeds and the Nightlights

Joanie Leeds and the NIghtlights Meshugana album cover

Joanie Leeds and the NIghtlights Meshugana album cover

With Christianity still the majority religion in the United States, most of those with a different or no religion still probably get a pretty good idea of the basic contours of the Christian rituals, at least Christmas and Easter, even if only through music.  But what about those other religions?  Where are the songs that might share those rituals with a wider audience?

There are a number of artists who've recorded albums that present Jewish culture and traditions for a kid-centered audience, so Joanie Leeds is hardly the first.  In fact, her latest album, Meshugana, isn't even her first attempt at an album celebrating those Jewish rituals (though it is her first with her band The Nightlights).

It is, however, one of the most successful I've heard as a non-Jewish listener at conveying that culture both 1) with a modern sound, and 2) in a way that might bring those Gentiles like me a little bit closer.  About half of the songs are tied to specific Jewish holidays, but the rest are more applicable year-round.  The album's strongest track, the tender "Hello, Goodbye, Shalom," neatly weaves together the Hebrew word "Shalom" (meaning "hello," "goodbye," and "peace") into a gentle Beatles tribute that succeeds on every level.  "PJ Party" celebrates reading with a soaring sing-along chorus and just a handful of Hebrew words mixed in.  And the title track is about as revved up and mixed-up as you might expect a song about a "crazy person" (the meaning of "meshugana") might be.

As a non-Jewish listener, the songs that are more tied to specific holidays were not as compelling to me, but Leeds definitely tried to keep them accessible -- "Honey and Apples," tied to a ritual for Rosh Hashana, was my favorite of these.  As with the rest of Leeds' work, the songs (all original -- even "Wade in the Water" gets a Passover reworking) are mostly funny, occasionally tender, and feature a range of rock styles from folk-rock to indie-pop, even a hint of country.

The 35-minute album will be most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9.  You can stream the album here.  For those of you wanting lyrics, yes, the physical copy includes those in the liner notes.

We're not Jewish, so I can't see our family breaking out this CD often, but I could certainly envision spinning selected songs in playlists throughout the year.  And for those families (or classrooms) who want to share a little more about the Jewish culture and faith -- or for those families who want to celebrate their faith with some 21st-century pop sounds -- Meshugana will make for a nice addition to their collections.  Recommended.

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