Beware the music of a new parent.
Clouded by the biologically necessary attachment to a newcomer to the family, a normally rational person and musician can be fooled into thinking that these feelings are somehow unique to them, that nobody has ever felt like this before about their child. Which leads to rambling output that doesn't really say anything new. (Wait a minute. I'm talking about child-centric blog writers. No, wait, I'm talking new parent/musicians.) If you're going to sing about it, you'd better bring something new to the table.
So it was with a sense of relief that as I listened to It's A Big World, released last week by the duo Renee and Jeremy, that I realized that the duo had generally avoided recording parental pablum (or, when necessary, put that pablum in tasty form). The duo consists of Jeremy Toback, who released a couple of major-label solo albums in the '90s and formed the band Brad with Stone Gossard of Pearl Jam, and Renee Stahl, who has also released a solo CD of her own. When they recorded the album, Toback's son was a year old and Stahl was pregnant with her first child. They recorded quickly (the room was soon to become Stahl's daughter's nursery) and deliberately sought out a raw, lo-fi sound.
The promo materials name-check Jack Johnson as a reference, and it's an appropriate one. (For a more kid-centric reference point, think Elizabeth Mitchell, especially the slow songs off her earlier kids' CDs.) There's little more than an acoustic guitar accompanying Stahl's and Toback's vocals, and especially on tracks like "Welcome To This World" (on which Toback sings lead), you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a Johnson-penned (and played) piece. The lyrics on that track, which ostensibly are a welcome to the world for a new child, work just as well for new parents too. But new parents will probably respond to the rest of the album's lyrics, which focus on a child's sense of wonder with the world around them and a parent's sense of protection and care for their child.
There are some stellar tracks here, most notably "Night Mantra," a gorgeous song which sounds like a somewhat happier Aimee Mann track and features Stahl's and Toback's best vocals. "Powder Blue," an original lullaby written by Stahl which would have fit in perfectly on the Innocence Mission's Now the Day Is Over, is a great addition to the lullaby canon. Oddly enough, while many uptempo albums end with a slow song or three, this album, which is essentially a lullaby (or at least a quiet time) album, ends with its three most vigorous songs at the end. Bulked up with just a little more production, "Sleep My Love" and "Shoorahlaywho" could easily be hits on adult alternative radio.
Less successful are the time when the lyrics don't say very much. The leadoff track, "Miracle," begins with the wonderful lines "Are you the sun? / Are you the moon? / Are you the watermelon bug in June?" but ends up with the lines "You're a miracle / uh-huh / A little miracle / Oh yeah." If the song were two minutes long, that part would be tolerable, but dragged out over the song's 4-minute length, it's, well, not so much. And while I appreciated the overall mellow vibe of the CD, the exceedingly slow version of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" makes Mitchell's version sound positively raved-up in comparison.
I'm going to peg the age range for this 39-minute album at ages 0 through 5, picking up again at maybe age 30. You can hear three songs at the duo's website, plus an additional track at their myspace page. (At the moment, you can purchase the album at CDBaby.)
If the review sounds negative, it's only because there are enough stellar songs here that I could hear the stone-cold classic this CD could have been. (Frankly, I can't wait to hear what they come up with after another couple years of parenting.) But even if the album's not perfect, I guarantee you that this album would make a great new-parent or baby shower gift. While it's really targeted at the parents more than the kids, it'll make great quiet-time music for the whole family, even when (or especially when) your child has moved from giggling to throwing very verbal tantrums. Definitely recommended.