Just last week the long-running kids radio show Greasy Kid Stuff aired its last show after 22 years on the air. There are many different shows that have played an important role in giving kids music a broader audience, many with slightly different niches, but I think the niche that hosts Belinda and Hova mined particularly well was that of weird kids music. I think that more than any other kids radio show, their playlists sometimes featured songs that had a little "WTH" ("H" for "heck," because we're still running a family-friendly website here) to them. There was slightly more of an element of surprise to the shows and the playlists.
As we reach the 20th anniversary of albums like Laurie Berkner's Whaddaya Think of That? and the huge wave of kindie that eventually followed, there can be little doubt that the amount and overall quality of recorded music released into the world is an improvement to the world into which dinosaur-stomping was introduced. But even though the quantity and quality and even to some extent the diversity of the music has improved, I am rarely surprised by kids music these days.
Don't get me wrong, I still think what is being released is fun and is definitely worth sharing with families. And I fully realize that listening to, what, 3,000? 4,000? albums over the past 15 or so years gives me a perspective that is, for better or worse, far more exhaustive (or exhausting) than that of the typical parent, which means that I may crave novelty more than most. But I've been struck recently at how predictable -- often in good ways, but not all the time -- kids music is.
Which may explain my affinity for two of the -- let's just say it -- weirder kids music albums I've heard in some time, Froggins & Big's Dessert Island and Kleve & Davis' Music for Parents and Children. These are two weird and often unpredictable sets of songs.
Let's start with Froggins & Bug. The band is another spinoff from Dean Jones’ Dog on Fleas, which is slowly moving towards establishing a DOFMU (Dog on Fleas Musical Universe) of different bands. This band features Dean Jones and saxophonist Shane Kirsch riffing on a whole bunch of silly topics with some backup musical help from occasional Fleas Ken McGloin, Dean Sharp, and Jim Curtin. And with Dessert Island it’s odd to think of a jazz-inflected Dog on Fleas-related band that traffics heavily in spoken-word comedic riffs as being the less weird of two albums in a comparison, but here we are.
Jones tends to play the straight man to Kirsch, who’s most often the confused character. “Sports,” in which Kirsch makes up a bunch of sports that sound awfully familiar, and “Dessert Island,” which takes its inspiration from the extra “s” in the title, are perhaps the silliest, but hardly the only such goofs. (There’s also “Red Red Red Red Red,” which features Jones’ classic line, “That’s a whole lot of adjective, and not a lot of noun,” uttered after Kirsch sings the title repeatedly.)
But there’s plenty of silliness for the two of them to share, as in “Literal Red Riding Hood,” in which the two of them trade stories of the difficulties encountered by the metaphorically-challenged Red, and “Puppets Are Controlled by People,” which takes about a minute to outline the song title’s thesis. And even the occasional moment of beauty, as on “I’d Like to Live in Your Hat,” and “I Wish I Could Eat Pinecones.”
But, really, it’s 35 minutes of jazz improv that’s pitched just young enough to that kids may get hep to it. It’s odd, and miles away from generic songs about brushing teeth or pets. There are many songs about pets, but we could use a handful of songs about jokey failures to understand metaphor to even out the balance.
Music for Parents & Children, on the other hand, is a little bonkers. It’s by the Philly-area duo Klebe and Davis (who in reality are brothers Dave and Matt Amadio). This isn’t their first album, though it is their first for kids. They cite Warren Zevon, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits and Ween as inspirations, and there’s an anarchy that you just don’t hear in kids music much at all these days.
When I was listening to the album for the first time, there were parts where I honestly didn’t know where the song was heading to next. On “And Then Pretend,” they leap from one improbable imaginative situation to the next. The dreamy “Fire Drill” features a surreal day where a class of schoolkids are sent outside for the fire drill, and then nobody comes to collect them at the end of the drill -- by the end of the day they haven’t reached a “Lord of the Flies” situation, but some of them are in fact eating grass. And the stomping rocker “Piece of Fuzz” makes a simple piece of fuzz positively ominous (with a kicker of a joke at the end).
Mix in 3 different fake ads (45 seconds long, enough to develop the joke, not enough to get bored with it) and other silliness and this is oddity on the level of John and Mark’s Children’s Album or Billy Kelly’s Is This Some Sort of Joke?. (One final joke worth mentioning -- “Worst Day” features the line “this is the worst day of my life so far”… sung from the viewpoint of a kid who’s just been born.) It’s a half-hour of music that captures childhood in its exhilaration and uncertainty and sounds unlike anything you’ve heard this year, I can pretty much guarantee.
Obviously albums that are a little further “out there” in terms of their musical, lyrical, and thematic approaches generally self-limit their audiences. (By being a little brainier than most, they already probably limit their target audience to kids ages 6 and up.) And listening to nothing but these two albums would deny your family the pleasures of a 3-minute pop or R&B song, a folk music standard, or a classical piece centuries old. But I’d suggest that the weirdness heard within is just as important to a well-rounded musical and cultural life as hearing those different musical genres. In a time when breaking through your own personal bubbles is important to understand the world around our families, giving albums like these two a louder voice has merit, too.