Review: "Central Services Presents... The Board of Education!"

CentralServicesBoardOfEducation.jpgLike many people, I first became interested in kids music when I first had kids. Which meant that my first exposure to the genre (as a parent) was to lullaby CDs, or to rendition of classics sung by families for years and years.

It was not to songs about the produce aisle's remarkable similarity to junior high, the inventor of concrete, or elbows.

So I guess what I'm saying is that the first kids album from Central Services and their not-so-mild-mannered alter ego The Board of Education isn't for those parents whose kids are just learning to walk. Heck, it's really not even for those parents whose kids are just learning to read.

But if your family's got one of those kids who've blown past those learning-to-read barrier with flying colors a long time ago, Central Services Presents... The Board of Education might be their new favorite CD.

From the pop bliss of the opening track, "Rise and Shine," the album is pitched right at that 9- to 12-year-old kid who's probably the smartest kid in class. School is the central part of their life, learning something so freakin' cool, even if the rest of the day doesn't quite measure up. (Unsurprisingly, one of the band's main songwriters, Kevin Emerson, used to teach elementary school science, and now has a book series, Oliver Nocturne, for kids ages 9-12.) The second track, "Beverly the Village Misfit," about a young girl who looks up at the skies and realizes the planet is in grave danger even though nobody believes her, includes the lines "Maybe you've had occasion to feel like this / When something you're so sure of / Is dismissed by all your friends / Despite the overwhelming facts you have to prove that / You are very right."

I mean, if that isn't a description of a brainy but perhaps socially awkward tween, I'm not sure what is. And that's not the only song that captures that feeling. "It's awkward in the produce aisle / The salad bags they don't smile / Anymore / The mushroom looks the other way / The cucumber bristles," goes one of the lines in "The Lonely Tomato," which has been one of my favorite songs period for the 18 months I've been listening to it. In telling the story of a tomato, which is unsure of his position in the grocery store -- "Oh, where do I fit in?," as the chorus goes -- the song not only captures perfectly life as a tween, it loads every bit of production into it, with horns, pop hooks, and silly voices (yes, the cucumber has a speaking part).

On it goes, combining great pop hooks (or pop pastiches) with obscure subjects like the invention of pavement ("Know Your Inventors"), punctuation ("The Many Uses, and Dangers, of Commas"), and volcanoes ("Volcanoes and You"). If this all sounds like a modern Schoolhouse Rock, you'd be right. There's even a song called "8 Is A Number." If there's any difference between that classic series and the songs here it's that Schoolhouse Rock would often take a more minimalist approach, while the band piles everything on here. It's unlikely the dripping-with-sarcasm-but-totally-peppy "Ice Ages Are Fun!" would ever make the cut on Schoolhouse Rock. Humor is common in kids entertainment; sarcasm, however, isn't, but if you're 12 years old, yeah, you're OK with it.

Sometimes it's too much, actually, "Volcanoes and You," for example, mixes funk with a faux educational film, and while it sounds kinda cool, it's too baroque to actually to be more than a trifle. And lest you think the band can't show some restraint, the last track (save for the hidden track) is a gorgeous lullaby "August Lullaby" that's lovely and sweet. Another simpler track or two like that interspersed among the wilder, goofier parts would have served it well.

While younger kids might bop along to the hooks, kids are really going to have to be at minimum 7 years old to get into the lyrics. You can hear songs at the band's Myspace page or samples at its CDBaby page. For the moment, it's only available as a digital download (at CDBaby, Amazon and iTunes, but will be released in physical format later this year. Update: Those of you living in the physical world can now enjoy the album...

Long-time readers of this website won't find my enthusiasm for this album too surprising, because I've been talking about a number of these songs for a long time. After settling down with Central Services Presents... The Board of Education for many listens, I can hear why it's not an absolutely perfect album -- there are going to be some families it doesn't move. But for some families, this is gonna be one of those albums they listen to over and over, and, like Beverly the Village Misfit, they'll tell everyone who'll listen about it. That this album rocks. And they'd be right. Definitely recommended.