I could describe Panda Brain!, the looooong-awaited second album from Austin's Telephone Company with a series of blurb-ready mashups -- "Sonic Youth meets Shel Silverstein!" "Surrealism meets Seuss!" "They Might Be Giants for people who thought They Might Be Giants were always way too conventional." "The Telephone Company dial up a series of songs from your kid's subconscious!" -- but I prefer to focus on a couple of small details:
1. The liner notes give special thanks to Adam Jones, "whose tuba playing for 'Lumberjack' was not used to a technical error on that session. Pat [Healy] sang the tuba part instead later on a different version." Yes, this is the kind of album that doesn't just feature a tuba part, it features a guy singing a tuba part.
2. The opening lyrics from the insanely catchy cowbell-assisted pop tune "Booblegum" - "We get a lot of people asking us / What's the difference between Booblegum and bubble gum". The way the band creates a world that presumes that not only is "Booblegum" not made up, but people have been asking them about it constantly, kills me every time I listen to the song.
The genius of the duo - Pat Healy and Jason "Chef" Pittman - is mixing catchy pop hooks and often very simple arrangements with -- there is no other word for it -- utterly weird lyrics that make Shel Silverstein look like a regulatory rule-writer. The Kinks ripoff "I Know You're Having a Problem With Your Baby" follows the phrase "Don't leave your kids inside the car when it's hot hot hot hot hot" with "Who put this baby inside the refrigerator?" One of my favorite kids' songs of the year is "What Am I Gonna Do With This Baby," which in contrast to most of the songs that feature just Healy and Pittman on vocals, features a whole group of folks singing the chorus. It's beautiful in an utterly otherweirdly way (with one of the more straightforward lyrical narratives, about a hobo who doesn't know what to do with an abandoned baby but doesn't want to "hurt one hair on the top of his head"). And if you think they're going soft and normal on you, don't worry, the next song ("Curly Beard") features a guy named Joel who changes his name to "Curly Beard," hires pirates to start a car wash, and washes his beard to wash the cars. Yeah. I know.
Trying to figure out the target age range for the Telephone Company because I sometimes have the feeling it's the age range of Healy and Pittman, that they're writing for themselves, and if kids dig what they're doing, so much the better. But I'd guess that kids ages 4 through 8 are probably most likely to appreciate the absurdist narratives on the album. I don't have any sound clips to share, so I'd recommend this performance on the Everlasting Ghettoblaster radio show, with five songs featured on the new album.
I could go on and on about the album, but I think you get the point. I think the album may be just too out there for a number of readers. If this review doesn't drive you away, however, I think your family might find the Telephone Company's Panda Brain! one of those delightfully off-kilter albums that expand your family's notions of what music for kids can be and becomes a family favorite. Recommended.