Like many people my age, I grew up on PBS shows. Sesame Street, Electric Company, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood -- all of them great. (And so was Scooby-Doo, but that's not relevant here.) So it's been a little weird to me that the great TV kids' music show of this generation -- Jack's Big Music Show -- has never been anywhere near PBS.
Which isn't to say that PBS doesn't have a show worthy of adulation right in its own backyard, if only it would share it with the world.
My friends, meet the Biscuit Brothers. Produced in the musical city of Austin, Texas (and appearing on a few PBS stations, mostly in Texas), this show centers around the titular brothers, Buford and Dusty Biscuit, who live on, yes, Old McDonald's farm. Along with their sister Buttermilk Biscuit and Tiny Scarecrow, the funniest muppet this side of Kermit, they explore different components of music -- tempo, melody, or emotion, for example.
Want to listen for yourself? Then try their second kids album, Old McDonald's EIEI Radio, released this spring.
Lest this sound somewhat dry, let me assure you that it's not. It's rarely didactic, and the show would much rather make its point through humor, as in the classic "Chickens Playing Bongos," which features many different instruments (ferrets playing french horns, for example). The skit "Traffic Report" demonstrates the importance of conducting by illustrating what can sometimes happen without a conductor helping to orchestrate musicians' entrances and exits.
The music is pretty darn good, too. Buford and Dusty (better known to friends in Austin as Allen Robertson and Jerome Schoolar) have some fabulous Americana roots arrangements of children's classics -- "Oh, Susanna!" and "I've Been Working on the Railroad" are particularly sharp. But they don't limit themselves to Americana. Their revisionist lyrics to Jacques Offenbach's classical "Can Can" (as a how-to entitled "The Can, Can!") are a hoot and a half, while The 'All Coming 'Round the Mountain' Music Block," shows how the same song can be arranged in many different ways (one of which is, apparently, lovingly ripping off the guitar riff from the Beatles' "Daytripper"). Some of the originals are classics (the aforementiond "Chickens Playing Bongos," the snappy "Make Your Shoes Move!," which includes Tiny Scarecow's classic, "Help! I'm being chased by bees... No, that's OK, they were just bees of the mind"), while I don't think the slow songs near the end worked quite as well. Maybe if there were visuals...
What's that? Oh, yeah, this is a TV show. And while the CD, made up of bits from the TV show, holds up OK as an audio-only artifact, I think the Biscuit Brothers concept works best viewed as it was intended -- as a TV show. I'm not going to review the whole thing here, if only because a) this review is long enough as it is, and b) my copy, probably through family user error, got a nice big scratch, rendering one of the three episodes here from the show's first season inaccessible. But even with just two episodes and the bonus material, it's a nice collection. The first episode introduces the characters and the farm and like many pilots, is a bit slow. The second episode, "Rhythm," is easier to watch. The episodes are structured like many "educational" shows -- a common theme illustrated in many ways, such as live action, videos, features with "real kids" -- but, as I said before, the show doesn't take a very hard didactic approach. And the show is very sharply produced -- it looks great. (OK, maybe the animated animal bits aren't Pixar-quality.) The bonus material -- the featured songs from the episodes, plus bonus songs and interviews -- make it a worthy package in general. A second collection, featuring three episodes from the second season, is also available.
Old McDonald's EIEI Radio is lots of fun, though deprived of its visuals and since it pulls from a variety of episodes, it's a better introduction than something your family would want to listen to over and over unless they're familiar with the show. Of course, if you listen to the CD a couple times, you'll probably want to become familiar with the show. Really, if you give the episodes a few viewings, you'll wonder why this isn't on your own PBS station. Recommended.