Has there ever been a more high-profile collaboration between kids musicians than that of Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell? The giants at the start of the kids music movement -- Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Ella Jenkins, Raffi -- don't appear in person on the others' albums. And while collaboration is now the norm in kindie, with Mitchell especially as well as Zanes appearing on other artists' records, there is essentially no precedence for Turn Turn Turn , the brand-new album from the two kindie superstars. (Aside from a Laurie Berkner duet with Mitchell on Berkner's holiday album, there's really nothing.) It's as if Lady Gaga and Katy Perry teamed up for a new release, or maybe it's the kids music equivalent of Watch the Throne. (And, not only that, the duo's touring together, too.)
All of which is to say the expectations for this album were probably pretty high in a lot of quarters, including this one. So it took me a few listens to fully appreciate Turn Turn Turn, an album essentially recorded in a long weekend. For those of you expecting the full-band musical travelogue experience of most of Zanes' Dan Zanes & Friends albums or the lush, mellow lo-fi indie folk-rock of Mitchell's albums with husband Daniel Littleton, daughter Storey, and friends as You Are My Flower, the sound is different. That unadorned cover album photo, which looks like it could've been taken fifty years ago, is a pretty good pictoral representation of the music within.
The majority of the tracks are renditions of traditional songs, some of which will sound familiar to fans of both artists' previous work. For example, "So Glad I'm Here," which Mitchell memorably recorded on You Are My Sunshine, here gets a funky banjo treatment. I prefer the first treatment, easily one of my top five favorite Mitchell tracks, but I appreciate the attempt to mix it up. Other songs will sound familiar just because they move in the same circles the artists have traveled in before -- the sea song "Sail Away Ladies" would've fit on Zanes' criminally unknown Sea Music, while "Raccoon and Possum" could have been recorded (differently, in all likelihood) by Zanes and Mitchell on many of their previous albums. Mitchell fans may miss, however, the more modern not-obvious-until-recorded cover choices (Velvet Underground, Allman Brothers) on her previous albums.
There are six original tracks as well. With "Honeybee," Mitchell's lone original, a gentle song with nifty wordplay that could easily be a lost Woody Guthrie track, she reminds the listener that for all her gifts as a song-interpreter, she has songwriting gifts, too. (Don't hide them under bushel basket, Elizabeth!) Zanes contributes five new songs. I particularly like "Coney Island Avenue," a strutting, hand-clapping stroll through a local neighborhood -- a prototypical Zanes song. "Now Let's Dance" is his best (and successful) attempt at a sing-along folk-dance tune, while "In the Sun" is a dreamy, mid-afternoon nap of a song that's probably the best actual duet here, a nice blend of their voices. (Though "Shine," the closest thing to a modern pop song on the album -- though it's not very close at all -- is a close second.)
Suggesting an age range for Dan Zanes albums (and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Mitchell albums) is a fool's errand, so while it's not an album focused on toddlers and infants, kids of all ages should enjoy it. As noted above, the instrumentation mostly eschews the fuller-band sound of DZ&F albums and fuzzy lo-fi rock of YAMF albums for a more restrained folk sound; look at that album cover again -- mandolin, guitar, tambourine, and ukulele.
Once you get past your preconceived notions of what this album should sound like (including this review), I think you'll find that Turn Turn Turn offers up many enjoyable moments. There are a handful of dance songs for fans of Zanes' dance parties and some songs that showcase Mitchell's warm yet crystalline voice. But the album's biggest strength is that this album of two of kindie's biggest stars features those musicians getting together to play songs humbly and joyfully. Highly recommended.
Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review.