Imagine if Kanye West decided his next album would be a bluegrass album. Or if Metallica felt they had a polka album in them. How would their fans react? How would the bluegrass or polka purists react? Most importantly, would the music be any good?
I'm thinking about those questions after having listened to Nueva York!, the latest album from Dan Zanes. The album, released yesterday, is Zanes' eighth "age-desgregated" album, the follow-up to his 2006 Grammy-winning album Catch That Train!. And, after slowly building up his rep as the godfather of family-friendly music for American families, Zanes has chosen to release an album songs from Latin America and Mexico recorded 99% in Spanish.
Zanes has released less obviously kid-oriented albums in the past -- an album of seafaring songs (Sea Songs) and an album of songs from Carl Sandburg's Songbag -- but those were released when Zanes had a little lower profile than he does now. So while Zanes probably couldn't act like Beck did early in his career, and release his higher-profile stuff with Geffen while releasing other, more challenging albums on small labels, he should still get credit of some sort for embracing this new album as the full-fledged follow-up to Catch That Train!
But back to the original question -- is the music any good? Yeah, it's good. The album starts out with insistent drums and the driving "El Pescador," which rocks as hard anything in Zanes' kid-ography, helped out by Marc Ribot on guitar. "Colas" mixes tuba into a a Mexican son joracho recorded with the Villa-Lobos brothers. "Pollito Chicken" is the closest thing to a "kids' song" here, with a kids' chorus helping out the children's rhyme.
On it goes -- through Daphne Rubin-Vega's turn on the beautiful la-la-las of "Alba Mananera," the Villa-Lobos brothers' forceful string playing on "El Pijul," and long-time DZ compatriots Rubi Theatre Company on the multilingual "El Canario." I certainly can't speak with any knowledge of how "authentic" the renditions are, but these mostly traditional songs probably don't sound like this today in their "home" countries, either. These renditions here are vibrant, full of life, with solid musical performances. More so on perhaps his other CDs, Zanes takes a little bit more of a backseat to his fellow musicians -- it's a more collaborative album than any of his previous efforts, which befits the learning and immersive nature of this project.
As good as the music is here, I can't say this is the perfect DZ album. At over an hour in length, it goes on for too long. Kids who have grown up on Zanes' albums may miss the absence of Father Goose and his silliness especially. And it's going to be hard for a lot of English-speaking families to fully "get into" the album when it's virtually entirely in Spanish. None of which the album bad as an entity unto itself, but for those families who stumbled recently onto Zanes via a Playhouse Disney video and haven't been listening for five years, it's likely to be a little bit confusing, at least.
While the album is another all-ages experience, it doesn't have quite the early-years hook some of Zanes' other albums have, so I'm going to put the target age range here at ages 5 and up. You can hear samples of the tracks just about everywhere online, or you can listen to "Colas," "La Piragua," and "El Botellon" right now at Zanes' Myspace page.
With Nueva York!, Zanes has crafted another album of fun, family-friendly community music. Going back to the question I posed earlier -- does it really matter who does a bluegrass album so long as the album is good? While the album is a less-than-perfect introduction to his music, longtime Zanes families will embrace this CD as just another part of his wide-ranging musical explorations. And hopefully it'll introduce Dan Zanes to a whole new set of fans. You'll listen, you'll dance, and -- Zanes hopes -- you just might even sing along. Definitely recommended.