I wouldn't be here if not for Elizabeth Mitchell. Not in a "here on this planet" manner of speaking, but here, writing about music for kids and families. A webforum's random note suggesting her kids' music debut You Are My Flower prompted an impulsive purchase; listening to the album, brief though it was, opened my ears to the possibilities in listening to (and making) music with kids. It and its successor, You Are My Sunshine, became beloved and well-worn recordings in our household. I mention this for two reasons: one, to express my debt of gratitude to Ms. Mitchell for that first album; and two, to give you a sense of my bias heading into the review of Elizabeth Mitchell's 3rd solo CD for kids and her first for the venerable Smithsonian Folkways label, You Are My Little Bird (2006). The pairing is so obvious that it makes you wonder why nobody had thought of this sooner. Mitchell's previous kids' albums (including another album made with her college bandmate Lisa Loeb) always relied heavily on traditional songs discovered or made famous by such Folkways standbys as Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Elizabeth Cotten. (She also liked covering Bob Dylan songs, too, part of the albums' unique charms.) The folk approach (homemade sound, often only accompanied by husband and musical partner Daniel Littleton) also made it sound very Folkways-like. This album is loosely organized around the avian theme of the title, with songs such as the traditional "Little Bird, Little Bird" and the Spanish-language "Los Pollitos" (The Little Chicks). (The use of non-English-language tracks continues the trend seen in the Mitchell-Loeb Catch The Moon album.) The album also includes slightly less traditional (but no less avian) covers of Neil Young ("Little Wing") and Gillian Welch/David Rawlings ("Winter's Come and Gone"). Some songs encourage listener participation, such as on "Little Liza Jane," which names cities familiar to the artists, while one of the album's standout tracks, "If You Listen," a sweet folk-pop track, encourages the listener to search for certain sounds (birds, different instruments). If there's a key song thematically here, this is it. Another one of my favorite tracks is the cover of the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On," which, well, rocks in a way few if any other Mitchell's kids' music tracks do. It fits in well with an album which takes the homemade sound of her previous CDs and builds upon it in different ways -- the significant (but not distracting) presence of daughter Storey, the gradual building of voices in the opener "Little Liza Jane," the banjo on "Little Bird, Little Bird" (recorded by another stellar kids' musician and banjo player, Pete Seeger). I can't discuss this album without mentioning Mitchell's voice, which is the sweetest and best voice in kids' and family music today. The crystal-clear quality of her voice not only is pleasant to hear, it's also essential to understanding the lyrics so you can then sing the songs to the kids in your life. (In fact, if I have one complaint with the album it's that some of the non-Mitchell-penned liner notes take up valuable space which could've otherwise been used to print lyrics.) Like the other Mitchell CDs, the sense of calm that permeates the album makes it appropriate for a wide age range, but it's probably best for kids ages 2 through 7. You can hear 5 of the songs (including "What Goes On" and "Three Little Birds") in their entirety at Mitchell's website (click on "Sunshine," then "Listen.") You can hear samples from all the tracks on the album at its Amazon page. If, like me, you are familiar with Elizabeth Mitchell's work, you will not be disappointed by this latest album -- it retains the simplicity and homemade sound of the earlier albums while expanding upon it in new and delightful ways. If, like me a number of years ago, you are unfamiliar with Elizabeth Mitchell's work, You Are My Little Bird is an excellent introduction. The album is a gift to kids and adults alike. Highly recommended.
... for a month or so, anyway. At the Bottom of the Sea is finally available at the iTunes Music Store. We'll see how fast the new Pooh song gets posted...
If Smithsonian Folkways is looking for another kids' musician to join Elizabeth Mitchell on the label, I've got a suggestion: how about Enzo Garcia? His latest album, LMNO Music (Pink) (2006), has echoes of Folkways standbys Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Ella Jenkins, but makes the mostly traditional songs sound his own. The San Francisco-based Garcia runs a music program, LMNO Music, for pre-elementary-aged kids and the album gives the listener some indication of what the classes might be like -- Garcia encouraging the crowd in a round of "Row Your Boat," or the hand-play of his original "Let's Make Pizza." In this sense, it's a very Ella-like record. On the other hand, Garcia's distinct voice and his banjo playing will remind the listener of Pete Seeger. And on the, er, other hand, his willingness to sing a cappella will remind others of Woody Guthrie. And for those of you with four hands, Garcia isn't content just to record traditional folk and kids' songs -- the album's standout song is the hypnotic "Hold My Hand," for which it took me several listens absorbing the layers of sound before I fully comprehended that it's another listener participation song. The album is about as ambitious instrumentally as it is possible for a single artist to get -- the tinkling toy piano on "Oh, Oh the Sunshine," is about par for the course. While dependent on guitars and banjos to ground the songs, Garcia is a sound collagist, picking a choosing instruments to fill out the sound. If there's an oddness (in a good sense) to the music on the album, it's helped along by musical guest Ralph Carney, who's also recorded with another stellar sound collagist, Tom Waits. The songs here are best for kids ages 2 through 6, though the creative approaches to familiar tunes throughout the album make it accessible to kids older than 6. You can sample tracks at the album's CDBaby page. Garcia's willingness to extend the boundaries of what traditional music and new folk and kids music might sound like differentiates him from many solo artists. It's time for a new generation of kids' musicians willing to claim these folk songs as there own. Are you listening, Folkways? Recommended.
I know what you're saying -- buying a new place? In this down market? Or consider the words of my wife, when I suggested that moving from the Blogspot site was like moving from an apartment to a place of my own, who said, pleadingly, "But a house is so much work!" (We speak from experience.) I then suggested that maybe it was more like moving into a townhouse, with a monthly maintenance fee. The real reasons are a little bit of vanity ("my own website") and a lot of reader ease. By using categories, I hope to make it easier for readers to find specific areas of interest (e.g., records for 4-year-olds, or lullabyes). I'm also hoping the site's a little more stable away from the Blogger servers. Of course, as of this writing, I've still got a long ways to go to move all the posts from the old site over here and to build back the rest of the links. But I'm getting there. Thank you very much to all of you who've stopped by, be it once or a hundred times. I hope this site (wherever it resides) in some small way helps you and the kids in your life connect through the joyful noise of music.
I'm trying to move the site over. Don't tell anyone, OK? It'll be our little secret. Unless, of course, you're really good at building websites. Then you can drop me a line.