You don't often get a second chance to make a first impression, the cliche goes, and that's especially true in children's music. A cheesy song is enough to make the parent quickly hit the eject button lest the children get too attached to music that drives the parent absolutely nuts; a poor album cover will doom the CD before it even reaches the player. So it was with Uncle Rock's 2nd CD, Plays Well With Others (2006), released a couple weeks ago. Uncle Rock? Just the name made me a little dubious. The logo? Designed by a child (the artist's son, as it turns out). And the opening song? Starts with the shouted phrase "Are you ready?" I was thisclose to hitting eject and never looking at the CD again, let alone listening to it.
And then within the space of about one minute, I was interested. The opening track, a general dancing around song, has a nice groove and includes the lyric "I'm gonna shake my head like the head of a mop." OK, you've got me back -- I'll stick around. Uncle Rock, as it turns out, is New York State-based Robert Burke Warren, who's played with both Wanda Jackson and RuPaul, among others. (I feel fairly certain that puts him in fairly small company.) Joined by a bunch of musicians on various tracks, he brings a loose roots-rock attitude to the CD, giving it a nice, organic feel. (The production is a lot better than the 4-track home recordings on his debut album.) The best cuts are those that are more fully realized instrumentally and lyrically. "Picnic in the Graveyard," for example, is a great kids' song about... er... death. Well, not exactly, but it's about Dia de los Muertos, a day of celebration where people have a picnic in the graveyard. "We're gonna sit in the grass / With people from the past / And we will not be afraid," goes the lyrics. It's got a great chorus backed by a horn section. The amusing "Gettin' Big Blues" is a bluesy number about how difficult it can be for kids to grow older ("I once had a T-shirt / the coolest thing around / but since I can't get it over my head / It's gonna be a hand-me-down" ... "I once had attention / I was an only child / But now there's a baby in the house / So I'm going wild... Pick me up / 'Cause I don't wanna walk") It works for both kids and their parents. The kids on the album generally add, instead of detract, from the mix.
Some songs ("Playin' Possum, "Shoe Bandit," "I'm a Pirate") don't work as well for me, they seem a little cheesy. But I give Warren credit for trying different things. He turns in a nice medley of "Magic Carpet Ride/Hey Bo Diddley/Magic Bus." And while the album's best cuts are the midtempo rockers, the closing ballad "Connected" is a sweet song.
The CD is most appropriate for kids age 3 through 8. You can hear clips of a few songs at Uncle Rock's MySpace page, though only one song, "Sugar Talkin'," is off the new CD. (Robert, update that page, pronto!) You can also hear samples at the album's CDBaby page.
Warren has made big strides in this, his second album. Teaches me to judge a book by its cover. He's got a little bit of Ralph's World and a lot more of Brady Rymer in him. Plays Well With Others is an album with some great cuts of kid-friendly roots-rock. Recommended.