Review: Animal Playground (Putumayo) - Various Artists

AnimalPlayground.jpgI’ve long believed that Putumayo’s strength -- at least in its kids’ music releases -- is compiling good, if not entirely challenging, mix CDs. They’re not trying to compile an anthology -- if they throw in a few good songs you’ve never heard of amidst the familiar ones, then they’ve succeeded in their modest goals. On that count alone, their new Animal Playground disk, released this week, is a typical Putumayo release, mixing some familiar animal-themed songs in with the unfamiliar in a combination that will make it easy for a parent to pop in the CD and for the kids to enjoy.

On the familiar side is Asheba’s “No More Monkeys,” which I will admit to loathing. I like some of Asheba’s music, but there’s something about the slightly hyperactive rhythm of this particular track that sets me on edge and my finger for the skip button. I know, the kids love it (so much so, Putumayo’s included a video for the song on the disk), but I don’t. Somewhat less familiar (but more enjoyable to me) is the Wee Hairy Beasties’ “Animal Crackers,” a fun and bouncy leadoff track.

I've also thought that Putumayo's popularity (as opposed to their strength) has a lot to do with flattering mostly white middle- to upper-middle class people that they have a funky, global perspective. (Putumayo may just have best CD covers in the record business in that regard.) But just because that might be true doesn't mean that Putumayo's not good at finding fun tracks from around the globe. They are, and this album is no exception. The Be Good Tanyas, a Vancouver band which had never really interested me before, gives the album its best track, a gently bopping song anchored by the chorus’ phrase “The littlest birds / Sing the sweetest songs.” (It’s the “Sheep” of this album, for those of you who recall Putumayo’s last Playground disk, Folk Playground, and its standout Zoe Lewis track.)

The foreign-language tracks are fun, though, really, Putumayo could have put these songs on a future collection called, say, Robot Playground or Sports Playground and you or your child would never have known the difference. I doubt many parents will use Putumayo’s liner notes; Ze’ Renato’s swinging “Cantiga do Sapo” is Brazilian tune apparently about a frog, though it could just as well be about a dog, or rapid inflation in South American economies. A couple exceptions -- the 30-year-old track “Nella Vecchia Fattoria” from the Italian group Quartetto Cetra is unmistakably “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” And Ladysmith Black Mambazo does a peaceful “Mbube,” better known here as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” They might be in foreign languages, but even your 3-year-old who’s limited to a 100 words of English will recognize and enjoy those tracks.

Given the language barriers on many of these tracks, the 36-minute album is pretty much an all-ages affair, though the English-language tracks make it more of a disk for 2- to 7-year-olds. You can hear samples of the tracks here.

Animal Playground is a decent collection of music and one that most families will listen to and find some favorites in. You might be able to make a better mix tape, but it’ll probably be in far fewer languages. That’s not a good reason to get this (or any) album, but it’s not a bad thing, either. Recommended.