OK, you have folks like Raffi and Ella Jenkins and Justin Roberts -- people who, once they started recording music for kids, showed little interest to breaking away from that and recording for adults. But there's a long history of "adult" artists dipping their toes into the world of kids' music -- Carole King, Johnny Cash, Harry Nilsson, Tony Bennett, all the way up through They Might Be Giants, Lisa Loeb, and Barenaked Ladies and every artist who's ever recorded a song for kids' music compilation. Some, like TMBG (or Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie long before them), spend a lot of time there, but usually the artists return to the world of checking for fake IDs and adult themes.
Which is what makes watching Chris Ballew, longtime Presidents of the United States of America member, so interesting to me. In less than four years, he's released four albums for families as Caspar Babypants, including this week's new release, Sing Along!. Over the course of that time period, Ballew has thrown himself into the project with energy and has tapped a rich vein of creativity. While all four of his albums are very good, this new one is my favorite and one of the best albums of the year.
It starts off with "Bad Blue Jay," with its "Yes, sirs" and "No, sirs" clearly inspired by the "Yes, ma'ams" and "No ma'ams" of the kids' classic "Mr. Rabbit." Next is "Wild Wild Time," which uses an old Beethoven melodic line. And on it goes, with Ballew pulling in influences from all over and creating new folk songs or in time-honored folk tradition, tweaking classics like "Ba Ba Black Sheep" or giving a hint of Beach Boys sound on "Long Long Dream." Also, I really dig Mike "Outtasite" Singleton's rap turn on the classic "Dem Bones." And while Ballew's always been willing to do very simple music for the very young, doing things like getting Frances England to duet with you on "Loud and Quiet" (or Rachel Loshak on the album-closer "Baby Cloud") makes those teachable songs listenable long after the concepts have been mastered.
The album's targeted at kids ages 1 through 5, though hopefully I've made clear that older kids will dig it, too. You can hear samples here.
I really, really like Sing Along! -- the Caspar Babypants disks have been favorites at our house for a long time, and I see no reason why this new album won't join its predecessors in heavy rotation. If he can keep it up, Chris Ballew might just create a body of work for preschoolers to rival Raffi's. Highly recommended.