One of the things I like most about the kids' music genre is the feeling that artists are following their own muse, no matter how skewed, when they jump in. Oh, sure, with everybody thinking that kids music is the Next Big Thing, there are more than enough CDs that scream opportunism. But there are still plenty of musicians making their music, their way.
Which brings me to Gunnar Madsen, the Bay Area artist who many years ago helped found the well-known a capella group The Bobs, and who last week released his third album for kids and families, I'm Growing. On his previous two kids' albums, Madsen tapped into the humorous vein he sometimes mined for the Bobs, such as on "Tuna Fish," all about a guy whose parents named him, er, "Tuna Fish." That occasional silliness continues here on I'm Growing, such as on "I Feel a Waltz Coming On," from a musical Madsen worked on nearly 15 years ago, about a person with a fear of waltzing. Or "Mozart's At the Window," which is the best "Beethoven's Wig" piece never written, as multiple Madsens tell the story of a very naughty Mozart to the tune of his 40th Symphony.
But on many songs, Madsen plays it reasonably straight, or at least as straight as one can on a song about somebody walking from San Francisco to Texas (the Randy Newman-esque "Walkin' Back to Texas"). "Always on the Bottom" name-checks Hilary Rodham Clinton while, er, singing the praises of not being too ambitious. And "There's A Bowl of Milk in the Moonlight" sounded about 80 years old to me, but Madsen puts it about 70 years, describing his composition as "an old English Pub song for cats." Madsen's voice is usually front-and-center, and rightfully so, but the musical arrangements are well-suited to these stories, either a capella, or accompanied by piano, or even a fuller set of pop-based instruments.
The songs here really aren't "kids' songs" -- there's nary a song here about the first day of school or learning the alphabet -- but I think kids ages 4 through 8 will be in the best frame of mind to hear the songs. You can listen to every track from the 43-minute album at Madsen's page for the album.
Gunnar Madsen reminds me a bit of Peter Himmelman, another singer-songwriter whose released albums for families along with albums for adults for many years now and who shares with him a somewhat idiosyncratic view of the world. He's a story-teller, though Madsen tells his story not so much via folk-rock but rather through a wide gamut of musical styles. There's no pop-rock goldmine at the end of the rainbow here on I'm Growing, but if your family isn't looking for that and can appreciate the well-played (and sung) stories here, you'll enjoy the disk. Recommended.