Uncle Rock -- AKA Robert Burke Warren -- comes from the roots-rock wing of the Kids New Wave, a wing which has a strong New York contingent -- Dan Zanes, Brady Rymer, Dog on Fleas. Released last month, Uncle Rock U is the third and most recent album from the New York-based artist. He's distinguished himself in a couple ways from these other musicians. First, his recordings have a very home-recorded feel, even looser than those artists who aren't polishing things to a pop sheen themselves. This is not necessarily a bad thing in that I think part of the Uncle Rock charm is the slightly rough-hewn lo-fi sound, accompanied by friends and family.
Second, Warren is a lot more willing to vary his approach -- taking on different characters and sounds in a way that many artists just don't attempt. It's not that they're not tackling different musical styles or song-narrative approaches -- just that they don't try it all at once. Here, Warren does.
At his best, Uncle Rock combines an understanding of a kids' viewpoint and sense of humor with catchy melodies and fun instrumentation. "The Elephant in the Room" is a mid-tempo folk-rocker that actually explains what that metaphor means, with, of course, a trumpet joining in. It's a great, great song. Other highlights are the James-Brown-meets-public-safety-announcement "It's Hot! (Don't Touch It!)," the roots-rocker "Play Outside Today" and the pun-filled "Polar Bear Over There."
There are points where Warren chooses to take different personas, which succeeds to varying degrees ("Predator Dinosaur," good; "Hippie Harvest Kitchen," not so good). And I'm not sure what sense the grumpity "Grumpy Gus" makes stuck between two lovely songs ("The Season of Light" and "Baby Loves the Moon") at the end of the album. It's not that these character songs are really bad -- some are pretty good -- just that they don't blend well with the other tracks. (I suspect they work better mixed into a live show.) It's like 14 extra minutes crammed into a really good 30-minute album.
On listening over and over to Uncle Rock U, I started to think of Uncle Rock as kids music's Ryan Adams, blessed with many song ideas, many of them wonderful, but maybe with need of an editor. This is a really good album and another album -- maybe even two really good albums -- mixed together with decent results. It's recommended, but your mileage may vary depending on how much you and your like your kids' CDs to be of a more unified whole.