I wouldn't be here if not for Elizabeth Mitchell. Not in a "here on this planet" manner of speaking, but here, writing about music for kids and families. A webforum's random note suggesting her kids' music debut You Are My Flower prompted an impulsive purchase; listening to the album, brief though it was, opened my ears to the possibilities in listening to (and making) music with kids. It and its successor, You Are My Sunshine, became beloved and well-worn recordings in our household.
I mention this for two reasons: one, to express my debt of gratitude to Ms. Mitchell for that first album; and two, to give you a sense of my bias heading into the review of Elizabeth Mitchell's 3rd solo CD for kids and her first for the venerable Smithsonian Folkways label, You Are My Little Bird (2006). The pairing is so obvious that it makes you wonder why nobody had thought of this sooner. Mitchell's previous kids' albums (including another album made with her college bandmate Lisa Loeb) always relied heavily on traditional songs discovered or made famous by such Folkways standbys as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Elizabeth Cotten. (She also liked covering Bob Dylan songs, too, part of the albums' unique charms.) The folk approach (homemade sound, often only accompanied by husband and musical partner Daniel Littleton) also made it sound very Folkways-like.
This album is loosely organized around the avian theme of the title, with songs such as the traditional "Little Bird, Little Bird" and the Spanish-language "Los Pollitos" (The Little Chicks). (The use of non-English-language tracks continues the trend seen in the Mitchell-Loeb Catch The Moon album.) The album also includes slightly less traditional (but no less avian) covers of Neil Young ("Little Wing") and Gillian Welch/David Rawlings ("Winter's Come and Gone"). Some songs encourage listener participation, such as on "Little Liza Jane," which names cities familiar to the artists, while one of the album's standout tracks, "If You Listen," a sweet folk-pop track, encourages the listener to search for certain sounds (birds, different instruments). If there's a key song thematically here, this is it.
Another one of my favorite tracks is the cover of the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On," which, well, rocks in a way few if any other Mitchell's kids' music tracks do. It fits in well with an album which takes the homemade sound of her previous CDs and builds upon it in different ways -- the significant (but not distracting) presence of daughter Storey, the gradual building of voices in the opener "Little Liza Jane," the banjo on "Little Bird, Little Bird" (recorded by another stellar kids' musician and banjo player, Pete Seeger).
I can't discuss this album without mentioning Mitchell's voice, which is the sweetest and best voice in kids' and family music today. The crystal-clear quality of her voice not only is pleasant to hear, it's also essential to understanding the lyrics so you can then sing the songs to the kids in your life. (In fact, if I have one complaint with the album it's that some of the non-Mitchell-penned liner notes take up valuable space which could've otherwise been used to print lyrics.)
Like the other Mitchell CDs, the sense of calm that permeates the album makes it appropriate for a wide age range, but it's probably best for kids ages 2 through 7. You can hear 5 of the songs (including "What Goes On" and "Three Little Birds") in their entirety at Mitchell's website (click on "Sunshine," then "Listen.") You can hear samples from all the tracks on the album at its Amazon page.
If, like me, you are familiar with Elizabeth Mitchell's work, you will not be disappointed by this latest album -- it retains the simplicity and homemade sound of the earlier albums while expanding upon it in new and delightful ways. If, like me a number of years ago, you are unfamiliar with Elizabeth Mitchell's work, You Are My Little Bird is an excellent introduction. The album is a gift to kids and adults alike. Highly recommended.