When "adult" artists decide to dip their toes into the kiddie pool (or jump right in), typically their music isn't too far removed from their adult stuff. Think of They Might Be Giants, or Barenaked Ladies, for example, or even Dan Zanes or Elizabeth Mitchell -- while the topics might be different, the sound isn't unfamiliar.
Which is what makes The Verve Pipe such an interesting case. If your only picture of the band dates back to their grungy mid-'90s hits "The Freshmen" and "Photograph," their two goofy and endearingly earnest albums of kids music, including the recently-released Are We There Yet? will make you wonder if you're correctly reading the artist name on the album cover.
You are. And the silliness and tenderness shown on their first album, 2009's A Family Album, continues here. If the first album was more evenly split between silly and sincere, the mix tends more toward the silly on this new album. My inner "Weird Al" Yankovic approves of this shift, with "Scavenger Hunt," a spiritual and lyrical sequel to "We Had To Go Home," kicking off the album with a singalong (if quick) chorus, an amusing list of hunt requests, and a gratuitous shout-out to a '90s boy band that I won't ruin further by mentioning. Songs like "I Didn't Get My Note Signed," "I'm Not Sleeping In ('Cuz It's Saturday)," and "My Principal Rocks" ("That's when I saw a picture on his arm / Inconceivable, a tattoo on my principal / Who's playing in a rock and roll band.") have a similar tone, with a slightly incredulous narrator faced with slightly outlandish results of familiar situations.
It's not that bandleaders Brian Vander Ark and Donny Brown are entirely cut-ups -- ballads like "Great Big World" and (especially) album closer "All Grown Up" are unabashedly encouraging and tender, and if all eleven tracks were like that, it'd be too much, frankly. But scattered among songs like "You Can Write A Song" (which features background vocals by Jack Forman and Drew Holloway of Recess Monkey and another entirely unexpected and sly tribute to another musician familiar to the music-nerd parents of the album's target audience), they provide a nice contrast.
The 36-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 9, and most appropriate for your wisecracking first grader on your Friday night family sitcom.
In preparing to write this review, I gave some of The Verve Pipe's post-"Freshmen" music a spin, and I'll say that hearing it helped me bridge the gap between that mid-'90s music and this new music -- it was shinier, slightly less... angsty. One thing that can be definitely said about Are We There Yet? is that the band fully embraces its role of class clown with songs that will put smiles on the faces of all but the most curmudgeonly of listeners. Fans of A Family Album will find this every bit as winning, and even if you're not a big Verve Pipe family of fans, you'll enjoy a lot of this new effort. Definitely recommended.
Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review.