It's time for the annual kids' music reviewer's dilemma:
How to review the new Recess Monkey album.
Some kids' music albums are just so plain bad that it is easy to mock them (if you go in for that sort of thing) or ignore them completely (my preferred approach). Other albums have such a unique sound that describing the sound becomes the hook of the review. And then there are the artists take their own sweet time releasing their music, which makes returning to their music almost like hearing a unique take in and of itself.
Which brings us to the Seattle trio. They're good (scratch that first approach), have no particularly unique sound (forget the second), and are incredibly prolific (they've now recorded 8 albums in less than 8 years -- they've likely written and recorded an album in the time it's taken me to write this review -- so I guess that take on the album's out, too). I tried dealing with this problem by writing an entire review in haiku form last year, but for the band's latest album In Tents, I'm forgoing the weird stuff in favor of a plain review.
As you might suspect from the album title, the album is a concept album about circuses, but as with their previous albums, most of which have revolved around a theme of some sort (superheroes, space, monsters), it's a loose concept. Yes, the leadoff title track is about performing in a tent, but the following track "Popcorn" could easily be on a food-themed or movie-themed album. Most of the songs, in other words, stand on their own (except for "The Dancin' Bear," the Beastie Boys homage which is so deliriously odd and funky that it stands, or dances, on its own).
The album starts out with a very modern sound - "Popcorn" has a modern sound, while "Sit and Spin" (Tilt-a-Whirl, natch) has a driving chorus. But as the album progresses, it regresses sonically. "Human Cannonbal" sounds just a bit like the Who in their more musical-minded moments. And for much of the rest of the album ("Dancin' Bear" notwithstanding), the band returns to the Beatles sound which inspired their early work -- "Bouncy House" includes echoes of "Get Back" and "Edwina Mae" sounds like A Hard Day's Night-era music, for example, and other songs like "House of Cards" have the 1920s vaudeville sound that runs through a lot of the Fab Four's work with George Martin.
In fact, as I listened to the album, I was reminded in more ways than one of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Some of the reason are minor (the Beatles' circus costumes on the album cover suggesting this album's theme) and some larger (the wistful song "Crystal Ball" and album closer "Show on the Road" striking echoes of that album -- "Crystal Ball" even includes a "When I'm Sixty-Four" shoutout).
Dean Jones' production here is clean -- it sounds a lot like any other Recess Monkey album, sonically, albeit with a little more trombone. (I loved, though, the production choice in "I Could See (Magically)" to fuzz up the sound at the begin and to clear it all up once the narrator gets glasses.) And he also lets the band's natural humor show through (Mayor Monkey! Drew Holloway's manic over-singing in "Sit and Spin").
As with most Recess Monkey albums, this album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8. You can listen to a few of the tracks at the band's homepage. As always, the physical packaging for the album, this time featuring a backstory for the circus theme, is excellent.
There's not a lot of backstory here -- Recess Monkey makes music for kids, with joy and without pretense. There are lots of other bands who do that, too, but few if any who do it as well. As bands go, I'm not sure they're the Beatles of kids music -- who would want to saddle anyone with those expectations -- but when you look at the consistently high level of musical quality the band's given us over the past few years, perhaps it's not such a totally ridiculous claim. It's a tough call, but I think In Tents is my favorite Recess Monkey album yet. Highly recommended.
Note: I was provided a copy of the album for possible review. Also, the band was invaluable in helping to create Hand Aid's "Felt Around the World." But I'm a looooongtime fan.