Review Two-Fer: "Underwater Land" and "Polkabats and Octopus Slacks"

UnderwaterLand.jpgIs it poetry set to music, or music made of poetry? That's the question posed by these two albums.

The first, Underwater Land, consists of poems set to music written by the well-known poet and occasional songwriter Shel Silverstein. Originally released in 2002 and re-released this fall, the nautically-themed music was recorded in 1997 by Silverstein's friend Pat Dailey, with Silverstein making vocal appearances on a few tracks. The tracks here are a mix of poems that seem to have been written without music particularly in mind, along with some songs that seem to be more like songs. The title track has enough fish-related puns to last a good year, while "Fish Guts" (which at 4 minutes long is about twice as long as it needs to be) tackles the ickier side of eating fish. "Cuttlefish" is a cute little folk song, too. But a lot of the songs are basically spoken-word poems with minimal musical accompaniment.

The album comes with some nice Silverstein illustrations, and the subject matter itself includes the typical Silverstein mixture of comforting jokes and more upfront discussions of danger and mortality than you'd see in a lot of kids material. That's not a bad thing -- it's one of the reasons why I think Silverstein resonates with a lot of kids, for dealing in material that they didn't ordinarily read. (Anyway, it's probably best for kids ages 5 and up.) The 46-minute album is available here, along with sound clips from some of the tracks. The music isn't the big selling point here; I'd recommend the album for families who are fans of Silverstein's work, and poetry fans in general.

PolkbatsAndOctopusSlacks.jpgThe debut album from Twin Cities band Clementown, Polkabats and Octopus Slacks - The Music, takes a slightly different approach to poetry. They used a couple books of poetry from the author/illustrator Calef Brown (the book giving the album its title and its sequel Dutch Sneakers and Flea Keepers) and crafted 28 distinct songs for its 28 distinct poems. (The somewhat askew viewpoints of the poems' subjects owe a small debt in some way to Silverstein.) These aren't long poems and the band doesn't attempt to craft choruses or extend the text in anyway, so the songs are rarely more than 2 minutes long. As a result, you're forced to move onto the next song -- like "Kansas City Octopus" 1 minute and 39 seconds into the funky groove or the indie-pop-tastic "Gum Bubble Monday" just 83 seconds into the song -- no matter how much you're enjoying it. It's like listening to a poetry-centric version of TMBG's Dial-A-Song service. I also dug the southern rock of "The Bathtub Driver" and the slow, off-kilter sound of "Ed," among other tracks.

What's most impressive about the set of songs is how much attention is paid to painting a picture with the songs. Clementown's Kate Lynch and Chris Beaty work to create distinct worlds for each of the songs -- the funkiness of "Funky Snowman," the slightly seedy sound of "Fleakeepers," the Chris-Isaak-on-kids-music sound of "Desert Surfer" -- and for the most part they succeed in creating those worlds.

The songs will be of most interest to kids ages 4 through 9. You can listen to several tracks from the 46-minute album at the band's Myspace page or watch some videos at its main page (be sure to check out the video page as well). You can also purchase the disk (in mp3 format and listen to more clips at the album's CDBaby page.) I'd also note that while you can enjoy the album without the two books which inspired the band, the books are worth reading both for the text and Brown's vivid drawings. (So, hey, Houghton Mifflin, get a 2-book/CD combo out pronto, OK?) In any case, these, too, are a fun set of poems and a unique set of songs that will entertain quite a few families regardless of their poetry proficiency. Recommended.