Dan Bern might not be the first person you'd think to release a kids music album -- a discography filled with socially and politically charged songs (sample: "Bush Must Be Defeated") isn't necessarily the typical precursor to singing songs about binkies. But Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Ella Jenkins didn't exactly hide behind their political convictions, so why shouldn't politically-minded contemporary folk musicians be any less free to sing for the preschool set?
Having said that, if you're expecting you're expecting the just-released Two Feet Tall to be your toddler's introduction to progressive politics, you'll be disappointed. Instead, the album features amusing couplets like this in "Hen Party" -- "They'll be playing ball games / They'll be eating applesauce / One thing we know for sure is / They won't be playing an egg toss." The closest Bern really gets to being political is "Labor Day," and that's really just a celebration of walking outside with an infant.
Instead, Bern's more interested in turning a simple story of putting on pants ("Trousers") into a digression on how pants became trousers (Jack Trousers, 1751, apparently -- strange how Wikipedia is oddly silent on that issue). Or a manic telling via lyrical couplets of the people behind Listerine or Kleenex or Schwinn bicycles ("Mister Lister"). Or telling a child she's too young to do things she wants to do with lyrics that will thankfully go over the 18-month-old's head ("If you came to me and said / I want to hold a shiny red purse and / Hang on the corner of Hollywood and Vine / I'd say / You're too, too, too young / You're too young for that / Why don't you sit on my lap / And we'll drink cookies and milk...").
And occasionally Bern comes up with classic kid-folk songs, like "Shoes" ("I like that you don't have a mortgage / I like that you don't have a mortgage / That's OK when you're old and gray / But today you can run and play / I like that you don't have a mortgage...") "Only a Mouse" lists all the things only a mouse knows -- the migratory patterns of cats, certain qualities of cheese, and mixing a sloe gin fizz, apparently, among other things. There are plenty of other tracks here, such as "Donkey to Brunch," "Secrets," and "Monkey and the Kangaroo" that could easily have been recorded on a Folkways album of fifty years ago. Bern's clearly in love with his kid, and that tenderness comes through loud and clear. Well, at least clear.
Clocking in at 38 songs and about 70 minutes in length, the album could have been trimmed by at least a third, not because any of the songs are bad (OK, I'd be happy never to hear again the vibrating chair in "It Vibrates") but because there's relatively little variation in the arrangements, with whistling or bells occasionally offsetting Bern's sightly nasally voice and guitar (or ukulele) playing. (There's a reason I've been focusing on Bern's wordplay here.) The songs here are most appropriate for kids ages 0 through 4. You can purchase the album at Bern's store or hear samples through iTunes.
As if he were the child of Kimya Dawson, Barry Louis Polisar, and Woody Guthrie, Dan Bern's put together a collection of gentle and witty lo-fi songs that wear their hearts on their sleeves and occasionally achieve transcendance. Two Feet Tall isn't for everyone, but if you know a relatively new parent (or are one yourself) and are looking for an album celebrating infant- and toddlerhood with some roughness around the edges, you might just adore this album. For those folks, it's recommended.
Disclosure: I purchased this album. Is that a disclosure?