Review: Explorer of the World - Frances England

Explorer of the World album cover

Explorer of the World album cover

Frances England didn’t plan on becoming a kids musician when she made her first album more than a decade ago.  She just wanted to contribute something to her son’s preschool fundraiser, and wrote songs for a homegrown CD while supervising her son’s baths.  But that album’s popularity far surpassed the small world of that San Francisco school.  Last Friday she officially released her fifth album for families, Explorer of the World.

As the album title suggests, England is concerned with themes of exploration, observation, and investigation.  But rather than traveling long distances, she pays close attention to the world literally outside her front door -- walking her dog around her neighborhood, for example, noticing patterns and colors.  She’s inspired as much by visual artists like Wendy McNaughton and Keri Smith as by musicians, and like those artists, she encourages her listeners to pay attention to the art around them daily.

England’s music isn’t as shiny and poppy as that of her peers, but this new album is even more experimental than most kids music.  Instead of using chord progressions as the jumping-off point for songs, on some tracks she used field recordings she made walking around San Francisco.  “City Don’t Sleep,” for example, started with recordings from late-night walks along North Beach.

Co-producers Dean Jones and Dave Winer bring a lot of different perspectives in terms of the musical production, and the result is an album that vibrates as their approaches (Jones: earthy kitchen-sink sound; Winer: try-anything sonic collage and percussion) differ, but resonate with each other and with England.

I was trying to come up with the appropriate age range for the album, and while I'm going to put at ages 5 through 9, like much of England's more recent work, it's probably broader than that.  Not for toddlers, perhaps, but also for kids older than 9, if you get them to sit down and really listen.  (You can listen to this album -- along with the rest of her music -- here.)

Even though this album celebrates exploring her own backyard, Frances England is more interested in the process of keeping her eyes open to the world around her.  In discovering her own neighborhood, she reminds the rest of us that we can do the same with our own streets and sidewalks.  Highly recommended.