Boston-based singer-songwriter Ellis Paul has over a dozen CDs to his credit, and many accolades from fellow musicians. It is, therefore, a sign of the ascendance of kids and family music that after all that time this artist with such a career recently released his first album for kids and families, The Dragonfly Races.
Paul has written (or co-written) a number of strong folk and folk-rock tracks here, with themes that will be familiar to listeners of folk music -- peace, or speaking truth to power. Indeed, the leadoff track, "Wabi-Sabi," talks about some things, as they get older, having "wabi-sabi soul." That's a good thing for Paul, but more distinctively, when was the last time you heard a kids' music CD use the word "soul"? It's a sign that Paul is not about to dumb down his material just because the audience might skew a little younger. And in many places, that choice pays off in spades. The most rousing track on the CD, "Because It's There," is an inspirational song about doing dangerous things "Because it's there / Because we could / Because we should / Because we dare..." It's a fabulous folk-rock song. Songs that tackle slightly more kid-focused topics such as swinging on a swing (the mid-tempo "I Like to Swing"), or pinwheels (the lullaby titled "Pinwheel," natch) do so with fun wordplay and imaginative lyrics.
I should note that the album has a definite political undercurrent, and I'm not sure it always serves the album well. It wasn't the content itself -- if you're a fan of Dan Zanes and Pete Seeger (as I am), nothing here will offend you. But I was much more taken with the CD when Paul is telling stories or reeling out his views of life in smaller-scale ways. "Abiola," co-written with Antje Dukevot, is a fantastic song about a girl who ignores rumors spread by a king about a nearby monster to find out the truth. No small political allegory, there. Kids will enjoy the story and, the older ones at least, will understand the point. "The Million Chameleon March" and "Nine Months to Fix the World" have similar themes, but don't work nearly as well on this CD. Perhaps on another one, one targeted primarily at the parents...
Kids ages 5 through 10 will most appreciate (and understand) the themes tackled here. You can hear several of the songs from the 40-minute album at the album's Myspace page or clips from all the tracks at its CDBaby page. (I would also mention that the album packaging, with artwork from Paul, is one of the nicer kids' music album packages I've seen recently.)
In the end, I don't want to leave you with the impression that this is an overtly political album, because it's not. The Dragonfly Races is, however, political in that Ellis Paul has recorded songs that speak very clearly to the type of world he, as a parent of two young kids, would like his kids to grow up in. I suspect that most of you readers envision a similar type of world. These tuneful modern folk songs celebrate imagination and dedication -- we could use more of those. Recommended.