I initially approached Frances England's 2006 debut album Fascinating Creatures as if I were playing a game of "spot-the-influence." Did I hear Elizabeth Mitchell (who recorded a low-key and lo-fi debut CD a number of years ago)? Did I hear Cat Power or Yo La Tengo, a couple artists England herself cites an influences?
And after a couple spin-throughs, I thought that to play that game was unfair to England, who has recorded one of the most adventurous children's music albums in some time, quite unlike anything out there at the moment.
England wrote all 13 songs on the album and recorded it with her husband's cousin Billy Riggs. Lyrically, England covers the 4-year-old waterfront -- tricycles ("Tricycle"); trains, trucks, boats and airplanes ("Where Do They Go?"); and the fun of a blueberry pancake breakfast ("Blueberry Pancakes") -- without talking down to the listener. These aren't new topics for children's music, but lines like "Tell me where do all the big boats go? / As they crash against the wild, dark sea / With containers stacked both high and low / The captain steers towards land and safety" aren't a typical children's music lyric.
Musically, the first half of the CD is a low-key affair, primarily acoustic guitars and light percussion. But on "Charlie Parker," the middle song on the album, that the album kicks into a higher gear, adding electric guitar and drums. It's a little odd to hear a rock song about jazz greats (albeit with some scat singing), but it works. The next song, "Digging in the Dirt," about gardening (natch), is an even fuzzier rock song. Eventually the CD winds down again, returning to acoustic guitar and England's voice.
Although England's voice reminds me a little bit of the nasally twang of folksinger Iris DeMent (particularly on "Where Do They Go?"), it wasn't until I heard England rock out that I figured out who she reminded me most of -- Tanya Donnelly in her Belly years, alternative rock in which Donnelly's voice was used as another instrument along with the wall of guitar sound. England yodels, yips, and in general provides the musical variation on the simple instrumental backup.
The album isn't perfect -- the mix of instruments on the rock songs sounded a bit muddied to my ears, for example. And England can sometimes try to fit too many syllables into a lyric. (One of my favorite songs on the CD, the closer "Little Bright Star," doesn't do that, and shines -- pun unintended -- for it.)
But that's quibbling. Fascinating Creatures is a good album, a very promising debut. (My wife likes it, and she's a much harsher critic of these kids CDs than I am.) It's probably best for kids age 2 through 7. Right now the CD is available through CD Baby, where you can hear samples of each track.
Finally, the copy I received was attractively packaged in a slimline case and burned on a nicely printed CDR, which may or may not be the version available for purchase. Those of you looking for a more complete package as with CDs from more established artists may be surprised. But what my copy lacked in heft it more than made up for in the feeling that here was something that I could say was the start of something big, like it was a little secret known to only a few. But I don't think this CD or Ms. England will stay secret for long. Recommended.