I don't know if the New York-based band The Deedle Deedle Dees are the most erudite kids' musicians currently recording, but they certainly wear their erudition on their sleeves more proudly than anyone else. One listen to their 2nd album, the recently-released Freedom In A Box (2007), will make that abundantly clear. Here is a random sample of topics covered and phrases used on the album: sampan ("Is that a boat? It's a Chinese boat!"), aphids, the Niebelungenlied, Teddy Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill, and the short arms of a tyrannosaurus rex.
And that's just scratching the surface.
Led by Lloyd Miller and some fellow NYC-area music teachers, the Deedle Deedle Dees are, as you might suspect from the short list above, a little obsessed with history, and it's the history tracks that initially grab your attention, telling the story of Nellie Bly's trip around the world ("Nellie Bly") and of Teddy Roosevelt's transformation ("Teddy Days"). And if you're not familiar with the band, I know what you're thinking -- that sounds really dry. But you'd be wrong, because what makes these songs different from most kids' history songs is the rollicking and earthy musical approach. The could-be-a-hundred-years-old "Nellie Bly" starts out with a "doodley-doo-wah" singalong that instantly lodges in your head while "Henry Box Brown" tells the compelling story of Brown, who mailed himself to freedom in a box, with "This Side Up!" printed on the side (the "This Side Up!" being another great singalong). "Henry Box Brown" is probably the best of the history songs here. Some listeners may find the lyrics overly precious at points, and the other songs succeed to varying degrees depending on how much they're telling stories (I think the country-rock "Aaron Burr," which retells the story of the Burr-Hamilton duel, is pretty awesome, but "Teddy Days" just tries to cram too much in, lyrically). Some listeners may find the lyrics overly precious at points,
Now, the band isn't just obsessed with history, and only about half of the 13 tracks on the 39-minute album are history songs. There are nature songs, for example, including the midtempo folk-poppy "Vegetarian Tyrannosaurus Rex" and "Obedience School," which is just about the most punk kids' song you'll hear all year. There are simpler music/movement songs, too (the very simple "Play Your Hand" or "Drum!"). While the band may mix all the songs together in concert, on the album it doesn't blend perfectly -- it just seems to lurch back and forth. Your thoughts may vary, but I'd've probably ordered the tracks differently.
Musically, however, it's all good, with the band taking a mostly Americana/rock approach, throwing in a few curves along the way (the Beck stylings on "Baldy," for example). The band sounds great together and along with their guests the album has an appealing raggedness. (Except on the completely awesome "Major Deegan," a beautiful, slow paean to New York City's traffic -- that fever dream of a song is not like the rest of the CD, but it's a perfect final song.)
Given the range of topics here, the album is appropriate for kids ages 2 through 12 (parts of some of the history songs will go over the heads of the youngest listeners, but are boogieable enough and with musical hooks enough for those youngsters to enjoy). You can listen to four full tracks at the band's Myspace page or samples of all the tracks at the album's CDBaby page. When you order the CD, you'll also get a coloring book with lyrics. That book, along with the information found at the band's Blogspot page for the album, serve as a great resource not only for teachers using the CDs, but interested families, too.
So here's the deal: if you teach American history in the K-12 system, you need this album. If you're interested in history, you need this album. But if history isn't quite your thing, you still probably need this album, too. Even the songs that don't work out are energetic and fun. It's one of the most ambitious and diverse -- not to mention fun -- kids' CDs of the year. Definitely recommended.