Review: Wonderstuff - Recess Monkey

Wonderstuff.jpgWhen the Seattle band Recess Monkey aped (pun somewhat intended) the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover on their 2nd CD, Aminal House, it wasn't a random reference -- they really did sound a bit like the Beatles on that fine CD. So with their Sgt. Pepper's under their belt (and maybe their fun but a little rough-around-the-edges debut Welcome to Monkey Town standing in for Please Please Me), all that's left is to release a double album, right?

Uh, right.

Set to be officially released this weekend, Wonderstuff is the year's most ambitious kids' music album. A double-CD set (a first for the genre as far as I'm aware) telling the story of Everett the Wonderbee, who along with some friends, travel far and face danger as they seek the mysterious Gray which threatens the meadows where Everett and his friends all live. Oh, and the songs and the stories were created (and performed) by the band with the help of a bunch of elementary-school-aged summer campers. (Really. I sat in on the tail-end of one the days of camp as an invited guest of one of the campers.) So, yeah. Ambitious.

Although the band joked this summer that they were making their "Yellow Album," as I listened I thought more of another late '60s double-CD set from another English band -- the Who's Tommy. Though miles away from Pete Townshend's somewhat dark and disturbing storyline, Wonderstuff is, at its heart, also a rock-pop opera. It intersperses its songs with narration and dialogue from the characters which move the story along. These snippets, usually a minute or so in length, are often quite amusing (for both parents and kids, though not always at the same time). The story itself -- a hero quest worthy of Joseph Campbell -- will be of interest to kids. (I must say, though, I actually missed "Mayor Monkey" from the previous CDs, which is one of the first times I've ever actually missed a skit character.)

Of course, the heart of the album are the 20 songs here. There are a fair number of songs that one would describe as Beatlesque ("My Pet Rock" is one such song, featuring the album's best melody), but other styles get their day -- the later Beach Boys sound of "The Pool," the Byrds-ian jangle-pop of "Down Down Down," even the Who get a cut ("Round and Round"). Which isn't to say newer artists get ignored. Some of the tracks on the 2nd CD have to me a more minimalist Spoon vibe, the dour "The Gray" could be a cut from Stephin Merritt's Gothic Archies side project, and the boys give another shout-out to John Vanderslice in the power-pop of "Backpack." Lyrically, the songs are split between those that hew closely to the narrative (e.g., "Magical Meadows") and those whose relationship to the story is tenuous ("Down Down Down" is really about a roller-coaster ride). In other words, take out the overarching story and you'd have a completely different album.

It would also be probably 30 minutes shorter, and when you're talking about 81 minutes worth of entertainment that's currently on the two disks, that's a big difference. In fact, if there's one drawback to the CD, it's the length. It would sound great on a long car ride (the story is interesting enough to keep the attention of the listener), but it may be too long for many listeners.

The album will be most appropriate for listeners ages 5 through 10. You can hear samples at the album's CD Baby page. I also think you'll be able to listen at the album's website, but that function doesn't seem to be up and running just yet.

With Wonderstuff, Recess Monkey have recorded another album bursting with energy and good spirits. Even if you're not interested in the rock-pop opera, there are a bunch of fabulous songs at the heart of this album worth your time. Definitely recommended.

Note: The album's release party is this Saturday, Oct. 20, at the Experience Music Project in Seattle Center. If you can make it, go. I think it'll be ten tons of fun.