Podcast Review: "Shabam!"

Shabam logo

Shabam logo

There are lots of really good science-based podcasts for kids, and I'll get to them in the not-too-distant future as I start to review podcasts for kids, but I'll start off with Shabam! because who knows how long before the zombie outbreak takes over?

I should probably explain that Shabam!, produced by a collective known as Foolyboo, differs from a lot of science-themed podcasts in that it folds its non-fiction topics -- pathogens, epidemics, cognitive biases -- in a fictional wrapper, that of a zombie outbreak.  I think the mix serves the podcast well -- the fiction does provide sufficient context for the non-fiction components, while the non-fiction parts ground the fiction (which I'll remind you is about a zombie outbreak, so take the phrase "ground the fiction" with a grain of salt).  It's possible to tell interesting stories about, say, epidemiology, in a non-fiction setting, of course -- yay, John Snow! -- but this fictional story works well for that subject, too.

I'm going to peg the age-appropriateness of the show at best for kids 8-13.  That's based on the science and zombie-ishness thus far, which isn't for younger kids, but definitely lacks Walking Dead-like grossness.   The iTunes link for the show is here.  Episodes are roughly 25-30 minutes in length, and it's as yet unclear how frequently they'll be released -- I'm guessing monthly from here on out.  Aside from a brief statement near the beginning and the end of the show that it's partially sponsored by Google, there are no ads during the show.  (Also of note: they do a really good job of editing the closing credits, telling the story in between all the various credits, giving the listener a reason to not hit the fast-forward button.)

The other reason I wanted to lead off my podcast reviews with Shabam! is that in its narrative structure, it's going to be best if you listen from the beginning.  Since they're only 3 episodes in, now is a good time to jump in and listen with your kids.  You know, before the zombie outbreak hits your town.

Video: "Manta Ray" - The Whizpops

I can't say that I'm on a first-name basis with Hank Green, the scientist who just seems to have way more time in the day than I do because he runs VidCon, NerdCon, and a whole bunch of other entrepreneurial efforts, even though I did recently attend NerdCon: Stories.

Still, the name "Hank Green" means more to me than it did, say, 18 months ago, and so when I heard that Montana kindie band The Whizpops were featured on a recent SciShow Kids episode of Green's, I figured, it'd be worth checking out.

And so it is!   It's for the song "Manta Ray," and it features some sweet animation and, well, manta rays. Win all around! Go science!

The Whizpops - "Manta Ray" [YouTube]

Video: "Water Cycle" - The Bazillions

Welp, it's another winning video from Minnesota band The Bazillions.  Their latest effort with eg design is for "Water Cycle" off the band's latest effort, the fine album On the Bright Side.  Appropriately enough for a song all about the movement of H! 2! O! throughout our atmosphere and geography, it uses watercolor images.  It's lovely.

The Bazillions - "Water Cycle" [Vimeo]

Itty-Bitty Review: On the Bright Side - The Bazillions

The Bazillions - On the Bright Side album cover

The Bazillions - On the Bright Side album cover

Minneapolis band The Bazillions have an ear for power-pop hooks.  Or, like, 23 ears, because each album of theirs has more hooks than one ear could possibly handle -- even one of those punks' ears with safety pins all over.

Their third album, the recently-released On the Bright Side, does not stint on the hooks.  "Superhero Rock Band," which kicks off the album, is like one of those movie pitches ("They're superheroes from DC and Marvel... but they play in a band!") that is so high-concept that song quality would scarcely seem to matter, but luckily for the power-pop enthusiast in the family, it's got crunchy guitars and a catchy singalong chorus, too.  That's followed by "Family Tree," a roots-pop song celebrating, well, family -- along with the album closer "Sons and Daughters," it's the first I've really heard the band try for something more emotional.

Of course, at this point, it wouldn't be a Bazillions album without several educational songs, including the jangly "Use a Contraction," the shimmering "Ed (Been There, Done That)," and their first science-related tune, "Water Cycle."  Longtime readers will know my general antipathy towards songs that have such an explicit educational bias unless the melodies and lyrics are really tight, but listen to the chorus for "Favorite Book," which is really just a reading-positive song, and tell me it isn't precisely constructed for maximum earworm.

The 37-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 10; you can hear three of the tracks from the album here.  As with their previous albums, On the Bright Side includes a number of power-pop and jangle-pop melodies that stand up to repeated spins, regardless of whether you need to learn some 2nd grade concept.  Whatever educational value they have (and is enhanced by their catchiness) is just a nice bonus.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: The World Is A Curious Place To Live - Lori Henriques


Who are the inheritors of the edutational mantle passed on from Schoolhouse Rock ?  While the crunchy pop purveyors of, say, the Bazillions have distilled a handful of lessons into 3-minute songs whose chord structures and arrangements would fit on any AAA radio station, who took the less-poppy and more obscure route that some of those songs from 40 years ago took?

Lori Henriques, that's who. 

Her 2011 kids music debut, Outside My Door , was one of those "unlike any other CD" CDs for which the phrase actually fit.  A mixture of 1970s piano jazz, Broadway exposition, Sesame Street , and, yes, Schoolhouse Rock , the album eschewed pop-rock for jazzy explorations of birthdays, twins, and more subjects of kid-concern.  It was smart without being snooty (yes, she rhymed "goat turd" with "awkward").

On her new disk, The World Is A Curious Place To Live, the Portland, Oregon-based Henriques even more fully embraces her inner Schoolhouse Rock  nerd.  From the album title, which isn't so much descriptive as it is sage advice, to the songs within, which deal with topics scientific, mathematic, and linguistic.  In fact, the 35-minute album can even be thought of as 3 separate and sequential EPs on each of Henriques' obsessions.

The first EP, featuring the most scientific songs, includes the album's strongest songs.  With its celebration of curious people both famous and close to Henriques' orbit, the opener "Curiosity" features a bouncing chord accompaniment and her evident delight in the wordplay. (For good measure, Henriques throws in a scat line or two.)  On songs like "Crunchy Privilege," you can hear why she cites Cole Porter as an influence.  And while Henriques having fun moving her fingers quickly to match the lyrics, the two strongest tracks on the album are "When I Look Into the Night Sky" and "Dinosaur," two  ballads.  The former, an ode to wonder and amazement, is based on "Saint James Infirmary" and has a lovely video to match.  The latter is wholly original, simultaneously an honest-to-goodness love song for a dinosaur and a wry recounting of millions of years of evolution ("We've still got the ants / And they're still crawling round on our floor").  I can't see this playing on too many radio stations, but it so totally nails that combination of earnestness and nerdiness that's one of kindie's most appealing strains.

The other two EPs-of-a-sort are fun, but don't quite reach the heights of the preceding songs.  The counting songs are brief and for the most part meld familiar classical melodies with skip-counting lyrics for numbers 2 through 6 ("Counting by Six is Sublime" to me works best).  The language songs include a Norwegian travelogue ("When in Norway") and, appropriately for Henriques, a wordsmith at heart, a celebratory ode to words themselves ("Vocabulary").

As on her debut, the only accompaniment is Henriques' piano, which she nimbly plays.  The age range may differ by section -- older kids probably won't find the number songs as interesting as the language and science ones -- but there's a sweet spot between the ages of 5 through 9.  Henriques has joined Justin Roberts and decided not to have her latest album streamed on Spotify, but you can stream samples on iTunes.  And, as with her debut, the album packaging from her brother Joel Henriques is lovely.

I think the thing I love most about The World Is A Curious Place To Live  is that Lori Henriques clearly practices what she sings, offering up celebrations of the world outside of ourselves.  Her jazzy-pop-by-way-of-Broadway-and-Carnegie-Hall is still unique in the world of kids music and worth being curious about.  Definitely recommended.

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

Video: "When I Look Into the Night Sky" - Lori Henriques (World Premiere)

On her 2011 debut Outside My Door, Lori Henriques exhibited a taste for brainy wordplay to go along with her jazzy and occasionally melancholic pianoplay, wrapped in packaging designed by her brother Joel Henriques.   How brainy?  Her contribution to the 2012 compilation Science Fair  dealt with Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.


Henriques is now getting ready to release her follow-up album The World Is a Curious Place To Live on June 4, and I'm pleased as punch to debut the first video from the album.  It's for "When I Look Into the Night Sky," a nifty reworking of the classic "St. John's Infirmary."   Rather than wowing us with scientific fact, this new track is a wide-eyed and wondrous appreciation of the infinite expanse outside our planet and its connection to the individual.  Lori once again gets an assist from her brother Joel, who put together the video featuring the tiny paper puppets.   "Sparkle" and "marvel," indeed.

Lori Press Photo 2 lowres.jpg

Bonus tidbit: Did you know that yesterday (98 years ago, at least), the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics -- the predecessor to NASA -- was founded?  Even almost a century ago, people were actively trying to figure out how to connect more closely with the stars and planets around us.

Lori Henriques - "When I Look Into the Night Sky" [YouTube]