It's safe to say the path San Francisco artist Frances England took to get to Family Tree, her second album, has not been often duplicated. England, who had never been a working musician, recorded her first album, Fascinating Creatures, as her contribution to her son's preschool fundraiser. And then somehow others heard the CD and soon enough England began sending copies of it, as she puts it in the liner notes of the new CD, "half way around the world." She was no longer a secret, as those of us who first heard her described England. But while Fascinating Creatures was certainly a fine album (with all the accolades to prove it), the question remained -- could she duplicate her success?
The answer is yes.
In many ways, Family Tree sounds a lot like its predecessor -- a melding of folk and lo-fi indie pop originals that stands out from most of the kids music world in its sound and centeredness, for lack of a better word. England's disks have a way of conjuring musical worlds that start with the security of home life and look outward, all the while sounding like Yo La Tengo or Elizabeth Mitchell or Tanya Donnelly. The debut had songs about tricycles, pancakes, and books we've all read as families; this new CD has songs about ice cream ("I Scream, You Scream"), grandparents ("Fast Train To Grandma's"), and playing with restless energy ("Free To Be Me").
But in other ways, this album shows growth from the debut. For one thing, England broadens her musical palette here, playing with a full band (Tim Thurman and Jeff Koch doing a lot of the work) on the majority of tracks. On the slightly-slow leadoff title track, for example, she offers up banjo while Dog on Fleas' Dean Jones guests on horn. "Best Friends," which also features England on banjo, may as well be a Sufjan Stevens knockoff, but in a good way. Elsewhere England rocks out ("Free To Be Me"), does country (the chugging "Fast Train to Grandma's," with nifty guitar work by Jay Heiselmann), and writes a classic folk song ("Spring Has Sprung").
In addition to the music, England is also challenging herself lyrically, writing a little more indirectly. "Tugboat" (which also features the Jellydots' Doug Snyder) is a sweet little song about how both the child and the parent -- exactly who is not clear -- will be the tugboat that always helps push the other back home. "Tea Party" is a fanciful story of a girl's (and boy's) tea party which includes a bird's commentary on the action. I think England's musical sensibility is still ahead of her lyrical skills (the directness of "Animal Friends," which encourages saving endangered animals, comes off a little flat, for example), but both have grown in the past couple years, no doubt.
Kids ages 3 through 7 will most appreciate the themes here. You can listen to tracks from the album at its CDBaby page. The album is officially released Tuesday, but CDBaby already has copies ready to ship. I should also note the lovely packaging which features (according to England) cut paper and acrylic paint using a roller to give it texture.
With Family Tree, Frances England continues on the promise of her debut, creating a musical world both adventurous and safe. Fans of Fascinating Creatures will thoroughly enjoy the new disk. And there are still lots more people out there who should be her fans. Goodness gracious, this is fabulous; I can hardly wait for disk #3. Definitely recommended.