Review: The Cougar of Haycock Woods - The Harley String Band

CougarOfHaycockWoods.jpgI'm already tired of PTA fundraisers, and our daughter has just cleared kindergarten.

I'd be less tired, perhaps, if our PTA helped put together something like The Cougar of Haycock Woods, the 2007 debut CD from the DC-area trio The Harley String Band.

Cougar Woods is a nature-based learning curriculum for Haycock Elementary in McLean, Virginia. The album was conceived as a fundraiser for the PTA, but it also took its inspiration from the curriculum itself, as the songs all have a strong nature and ecological focus. A number of the songs, like the leadoff track "Running in the Poison Ivy," take a mostly jocular approach ("Point your finger and wag your tongue / Bossin' me around till the bell is rung / Well don’t go getting all high and mighty /Look, you’s standing in poison ivy"). Others take a more serious approach, as in the title track, which sings about a centuries of human-cougar interaction -- from the cougar's perspective.

Not all the songs are quite so ecologically direct. "Cloud Shape Animals" packs its message punch not from emphasizing the fragility of animals on the planet but instead from emphasizing the difficulty of imagination as one ages. And the best track on the CD, "Drifting Away," a gorgeous tune with gentle string accompaniment, has no obvious natural connection except for the title metaphor. Over the 50-minute runtime, there are a few songs that aren't as compelling as the rest (I could do without the silliness of "Ode to Milkweed," for example), but for a narrowly-focused thematic album, it maintains its general interest remarkably well.

Musically, this is straight-up folk and Americana, with a little bit of pop thrown in. The instrumentals are well-done, with what must be a good dozen folk instruments (cittern, banjo, pennywhistle, and jaw harp among them) employed. Vocally, I prefered the sweeter voice of Jim Johnson and Jim Clark to the somewhat nasally voice of Steve Coffee (who wrote and sings the majority of the tracks here), but as I always say, that's a personal thing. Kids from Haycock Elementary make a few appearances, too. The whole sound has a ragged feeling, though in a good way.

Kids ages 4 through 9 will most appreciate the album. You can hear a few tracks and read lyrics to the album here or at the band's CD Baby page.

In the annals of kids' CDs born out of school fundraisers, Frances England's Fascinating Creatures might be the gold standard. But The Cougar of Haycock Woods is a solid collection of nature-based songs, a highly recommended choice for a nature-based curriculum in schools or Earth Day. But it's got enough charm that it's worth a spin at other times and in other places. And maybe it'll even inspire a few more PTAs to give up their chocolate bar sales for something more fulfilling. Recommended.