Review: Little Nut Tree - Dan Zanes and Friends

LittleNutTree_lowres.jpgI've already reviewed Dan Zanes' latest album for NPR. But there's a lot I can't say in a sub-4-minute review with sound clips, so I thought I'd add a few comments on Little Nut Tree, Zanes' sixth "proper" family album.

First, it's been a long time since Zanes released a "family" album, more than five years. And while Nueva York!, The Welcome Table, and 76 Trombones weren't bad albums -- even the least-satisfying Zanes album is better than 85-90% of family music released in a given year -- they lacked the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink variety of songs that is an important part of Zanes' appeal. It's not the scattershot approach of many kids' albums -- one reggae tune, one hip-hop, one glossy pop -- but rather songs from many traditions, filtered through Zanes' garage-folk lens, which lends his family albums some continuity but keeps the music fresh.
That kitchen sink is back, however, and as a result, longtime DZAF fans who eagerly awaited Little Nut Tree won't be disappointed, and neither will newcomers. Sharon Jones helps get the album off to a great start with In the Basement an R&B tune from the '60s, and although the album takes many detours on its way to its conclusion, it never loses its momentum. While I focused on the big-name guest stars in the NPR review, fans will be heartened by the presence of longtime DZAF associates Father Goose ("Jim Along Josie") and Barbara Brousal ("Saro Jane"). One of my favorite tracks is "John Kanakanaka," a chanty sing-along that would have fit perfectly on Zanes' underrated Sea Music disk from several years ago. Zanes also brings Shawana Kemp, Shine from Shine and the Moonbeams whose album Zanes releasing in 2012, on board to sing the soulful "Wake Up Baby!."

Now, did you know that you can get this album 3 different ways? Sure, you can buy the physical copy (yes, Donald Saaf has done another board book album package), but there are 3 different mp3 versions of the album. You can get the basic 16-track album at DZ's store, but you can also buy differing 17-track versions at iTunes and Amazon. At the moment, all three mp3 versions are under $9, so the question becomes whether the bonus tracks are worth splurging for. Of the two, I prefer "Friends," which is an uptempo song featuring Zanes and Sonia De Los Santos, a Hammond B3 organ, and more than a whiff of "Wonder Wheel." Unfortunately, it's the song on the Amazon mp3 version and is album-only. iTunes' bonus track is "Going Down To Tampa" is a country blues tune that sounds more like a solo tune (though there is some light accompaniment). It's not a bad song, and if I had to pick just one, I'd pick "Friends," but this track is available separately, so you can indeed have your cake and eat it too.

Like all Zanes albums, the idea that there's a preferred age range for Little Nut Tree is sort of ridiculous, but kids ages 3 and up will probably appreciate it more. You can hear three songs from the 48-minute album at the NPR review above or download "Wake Up Baby!" for free here.

So, it was worth the wait, friends. I'm not sure yet if Little Nut Tree is his Zanes' best album -- there's a reason why his Grammy for Catch That Train! was well-deserved -- but without a doubt it deserves to be part of that conversation. It's a joyful album meant for listening and dancing and singing along to -- in other words, a classic Dan Zanes album and one of the best kids music albums of the year. Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I received a copy of the album for possible review.