Review: Different - Elizabeth Street

Different.jpgThe first thing you need to know about Elizabeth Street is that it's a band, not a person, consisting of two people: Connecticut-based singer-songwriter Susan Kolbenheyer and guitarist Gregory Pearce. The next thing you need to know is that their debut album Different (2006) is pretty good.

In kids' and family music, there are many albums with decent music but with lyrics that are just too... obvious. It is possible, however, to write lyrics that are direct enough for kids that aren't so obvious as to make the parental eyes roll, and it's that fine line that Kolbenheyer walks on the album.

Take, for example, the power-poppy "Fair," with a chorus of "Life isn't always fair / Sometimes things don't work out like you plan / But we make the best with what we can / and hey it may be grand." If the whole song was as obvious as the chorus, it would get tiring very quickly. Luckily, the stories in the verses (for example, how the narrator's dad ate the "Chubby Hubby" ice cream she thought she'd hidden in the back of the freezer) are laced with humor and the song ends with a bunch of nonsensical wordplay. Kolbenheyer says she's trying to open up an avenue of dialogue between parents and kids with the songs, and even includes the gentle and bluesy "You Can Tell Me" to expressly encourage dialogue, though even here the verses aren't always direct ("Did you disagree with your imaginary friend? / You can tell me, you can tell me / Did he hurt your feelings even though he is pretend? / You can tell me anything")

If there's a dominant musical approach, it's gentle folk-guitar-pop, but there's definitely enough variety musically to keep things interesting. "Really Gross" is the best song about nose-picking that Jack Johnson never wrote, while "Dragon For Dinner" and "The Eyeball People" are punk tunes. "We're All Friends Here" is a catchy power-pop tune. Kolbenheyer has an appealing voice and Pearce's instrumental work is strong, though sometimes the productions seems to leave the vocals less clear than I'd like on kids' CDs. (Besides the music itself, I'd also commend the lovely album art of Pamela Zagarenski.)

Given the topics of the songs, the album would be most appropriate for kids 5 through 9. You can hear long-ish samples of several tracks at the album's CDBaby page.

Elizabeth Street sounds a bit to me like a more-amplified Frances England, or maybe a less-lyrically-direct Milkshake. But like most good albums, Different stands on its own terms, in this case melding a skewed-enough approach to kids-related topics with parent-accessible music. Recommended.