I know, I already reviewed the album for NPR. But it's always good to get a few more words in.
It could have been -- it should have been -- a gimmick. The Okee Dokee Brothers, the Minneapolis duo of Joe Mailander and Justin Lansing, heading down the Mississippi River in a canoe for a month, just the two of them, with the goal of producing an album's worth of river/exploration songs by journey's end.
But the resulting album, Can You Canoe?, exceeds all expectations in its breadth and scope, its heart and humor. Their take on the traditional "Haul Away Joe," featuring The Band's Garth Hudson, tempts me to pull out every synonym for "joyful" in my thesaurus -- boisterous, rousing, or, perhaps most appropriately given the nautical theme of the album, buoyant.
In its boisterousness, "Haul Away Joe" is probably more the exception than the rule on the album, with songs tending more toward the contemplative, such as "Thousand Star Hotel," or "Small and Simple," featuring Elizabeth Mitchell. The opening title track is the gentle invitation to exploration that serves as the throughline of the album. What happens on the river doesn't stay on the river -- it sticks with you for a long time. And it's not so much the big things as it is the small, such as the animals and bugs (see "The Bullfrog Opera" and "Rosita"). And while there's certainly a time and place for solitude in nature, one often needs companions to make that exploration work, a theme emphasized by "Haul Away Joe" and "Along for the Ride," which features Rachel Loshak. Producer Dean Jones does a nice job directing traffic and filling out the Brothers' Americana sound.
Justin and Joe didn't actually canoe down the river by themselves -- they had a couple other folks along helping out and filming a DVD with interviews and music videos packaged with the CD. There's nothing essential about the DVD -- if for whatever reason you prefer the digital mp3s, you and your family can probably get along with out it -- but it's certainly a step above most bonus DVDs. (Most of the footage is now available on the band's YouTube channel.)
The album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9, but the album approaches Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell territory in terms of its being truly suitable for all ages. Can You Canoe? is wide-eyed in the best sense, and easily one of the best kids albums of the year. Highly recommended.