Over the course of four albums, the Seattle trio Recess Monkey have gone from nice little side project to full-fledged rock stars to the Seattle-area kid-set. Take three guys with elementary education experience, mix in a healthy dose of songwriting chops, and add a bit of humor, and it's not too surprising they've built up such a devoted fanbase.
Their latest CD Tabby Road, officially released this week, gives no indication that their star will wane anytime soon. As you might expect from the album title, the band are big fans of the Beatles. (Longtime fans will not be surprised, given that Aminal House featured a Sgt. Pepper's homage cover, and the 2-CD set Wonderstuff was nicknamed the "Yellow Album" for its all-yellow cover.) There's definitely a '60s-era vibe throughout the CD, especially on tracks like "Robin (Sugar Goblin)" and "Kitty Sister" -- the former is probably an unrecorded Beatles track the band found and decided to pass off as its own, the latter also recalls the Beatles in a melody with some harmonizing and a gymnastic vocal line that's completely infectious.
Unlike Wonderstuff, which moved into the '80s even with its influences, Tabby Road stays much more in '60s-inspired sounds, hewing more closely to a pure pop sound. A totally engrossing pure pop sound, to be sure, but there's less power-poppy crunch here. Topically, the band continues its fascination with pets (including the tender "KC in the Clouds," about a pet that's passed away), friendship ("S-L-Double-E-P-Over"), and kids' rites of passage ("Birthday Bite"). They also mimic the second side of Abbey Road with a whole "Monster Medley" that's, well, insanely catchy (check out the album's "Boogie Monster" with its "whoop-whoop" singalong -- you and your kids will find it impossible to put your hands in the air or move side to side) and totally not scary. The medley doesn't blend quite as well as the Beatles' version, but I did like the repetition of the bridge line from the medley's start in "Under My Bed" in "Monster Truck," the last song (before the quiet "Wolfman," which isn't quite as short as "Her Majesty," but oh well).
If you're wondering what's changed from the prior albums, well, it's probably the tightest of the band's albums and, because it wasn't recorded as part of the "camp weeks" that the two prior versions grew out of, with slightly fewer kids' voices (though they still show up). Those of you who thought Wonderstuff was all a bit too much at 80 minutes long or who thought Aminal House was just a bit too all over the place will appreciate the 40-minute brevity. I missed some of the goofiness that marked those earlier albums (more Mayor Monkey, please!), but what's sacrificed here is replaced by a focus that serves the band well. Every track is solid. (And, yes, there's a John Vanderslice reference. I will be disappointed if the next album doesn't feature John Vanderslice himself as the John Vanderslice reference.)
Kids ages 3 through 8 will most appreciate the songs here -- you can listen to four full tracks (including "Boogie Monster") at the band's Myspace page or sample all tracks at the album's CDBaby page.
Over the course of four albums, Recess Monkey has slowly staked its claim to being the best kids music band in the business. Tabby Road is jam-packed with first-rate songwriting, matched by strong musicianship and kid-focused subject matter. These guys are great, and so's the album. If you're not familiar with the band yet, you should be and you may as well start here. Highly recommended.
[Ed. note: Just to get the potential-conflict-of-interest statements out there, I'll note here that I'm presenting them in concert next month here in Phoenix (which means that my take is, uh, $0). I wouldn't present 'em if I didn't think they were really good. But just so you know.]