Review: Five Cent Piece - Randy Kaplan

FiveCentPiece.jpgAnother week, another bluegrass-inflected album for kids from New York City.

Unlike Astrograss' more esoteric approach, Randy Kaplan folds in more traditional approaches to bluegrass on his first kids' CD, Five Cent Piece, released in November. Which isn't to say there isn't some oddness of other kinds on the album.

Kaplan has released five CDs for adults, but has also taught and played for kids often. His debut CD is a mix of well-chosen (and often reworked) covers and skewed originals. Artists covered include Jonathan Richman (the winsome "I'm A Little Dinosaur"), Arlo Guthrie ("Motorcycle Song"), and Elizabeth Cotton (the timeless "Freight Train") among others. One of the best tracks on the disk is "Grape Juice Hesitation Blues," his reworking of the traditional "Hesitation Blues," which features some great Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus-style interplay between Kaplan and a ragged chorus of kids.

The originals are a little odder, featuring songs about sharks in the bathtub (the spacy "Shampoo Me"), pesky mosquitos (the bluesy "Mosquito Song"), and, well, "Roaches," which features little squeally roachlike-sounds in the background.

For the most part, Kaplan plays it straight and lets the music do the talking -- indeed, one of the best things about the album is the terrific musicianship, especially when they're playing traditional songs such as "Freight Train" or "Over the Rainbow." But Kaplan likes to tell stories, and so a number of songs include spoken word portions including... wait for it... "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Yes, my friends, the Stones cut has been put on a kids and family album, a decision so shocking that my wife, whose interest in music doesn't quite match mine, sputtered, "But, but, that's a classic!" For those who are worried, don't be, Kaplan has crafted a 10-minute story using only the occasional chorus for punctuation.

As adventurous as the album is, it's not perfect. "Mostly Yellow (Big Bird's Song)" is a lovely but sad song about Big Bird's inner life that as amusing as it is for the parents, really doesn't fit on an album that regular (young) viewers of Sesame Street would listen to. And at a length of just under an hour, it's just too long -- the tracks aren't bad, but it's overwhelming when heard in one piece.

"Mostly Yellow" aside, this is a good album for kids ages 3 through 8. You can hear samples at the album's CD Baby page.

With his mixture of somewhat different arrangements traditional bluegrass and folk instrumentation, affinity for storytelling, and wide choice of covers, Randy Kaplan comes off as sort of a combination of Enzo Garcia, Bill Harley, and Elizabeth Mitchell. On Five Cent Piece, Kaplan has fashioned one of the more unusual kids and family albums of the year, good for chilly winter afternoons or late summer days. Recommended.