Review: Elephants Over the Fence - Johnny Keener

ElephantsOverTheFence.jpgThe Portland-based artist Johnny Keener released Elephants Over the Fence, but there are strong echoes of South Carolina, Seattle, and Brooklyn in the CD.

The South Carolina echo has to do with the musicians on the CD. Backed by Emily Vidal on bass and Jason Greene (their alter ego is Yoyodyne, an adult pop group), Keener generally plays guitar reminiscent of Buddy Holly or Johnny Cash records. Hmmm... a trio reconfiguring itself to play kids music? Where have I heard that before? But there's no complaint as the trio gets a lot of mileage out of the mixture of traditional kids, originals, and offbeat covers here.

The Seattle echo is from the leadoff track, "Miss Mary Mack," which, just as on Johnny Bregar's Hootenanny! CD, starts with the voice of a young girl singing the song, though here young Zella sings for a full 30 seconds before the band and a chorus of preschool kids join in.

And the Brooklyn echo? None other than Dan Zanes, an obvious inspiration for Keener. While Keener clearly doesn't have the star power of Zanes (there's no Sheryl Crow on this version of "Polly Wolly Doodle"), Keener likes singing with kids and integrates them nicely on a few tracks.

The best cut here is the cover of Woody Guthrie's "Bling Blang," which features guitar work by Keener accompanying a swinging piano by Yascha Noonberg. The two originals aren't too bad (I liked "It's Too Hot!," all about going to the local swimming pool), but the two songs that are most intriguing are the covers of Jonathan Richman ("Here Come the Martian Martians") and They Might Be Giants ("Robot Parade"). The Richman cover is pretty good and just goes to show that a compilation of kids artists doing Jonathan Richman songs is long overdue. Keener also acquits himself nicely on the TMBG track, slowing the tempo a bit to a more stately parade-like pace, and adding some robot-like spoken-word interludes.

The 25-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 7. Tracks may be available soon at Keener's website, but here, with Keener's permission, are two tracks for your immediate enjoyment:

Johnny Keener - Polly Wolly Doodle

Johnny Keener - It's Too Hot!

There is no wheel-reinventing going on here, but Elephants Over the Fence is an enjoyable listen, a smart-sounding CD with a loose energy appealing to kids and parents alike. Recommended.