Rocket Ship Beach was the first Dan Zanes album I ever heard. This was maybe 4 years ago or so. I liked it, but it didn't quite grab me at the time the way his 3 subsequent albums did. In going back to the album for the purposes of this review, I tried to figure out why. Let's start out with the stuff I liked then, and still do. You wouldn't think that "Bushel and a Peck" from the Broadway musical "Guys and Dolls" would be a great fit for a chorus of elementary school children (whom I generally dislike hearing on record), but they sound great in the song. It's 180 degrees different from the Olive Oyl-stylings of Faith Prince in the Broadway revival from a few years ago, but lots of fun. My other favorite track on the record is Suzanne Vega's take on the "Erie Canal," which is... well, I don't want to say "eerie" (that would be too easy), but Vega's voice and Zanes' lap steel guitar blend together in a wonderful duet. The rest of the album is... maybe it's just too folk- and bluegrass-based for an entire album for my tastes. Yes, Father Goose and the Sandy Girls make their appearances, as does Barbara Brousal, but the overall feel of the album is definitely more "folk festival" than the other Zanes and Friends CDs. Maybe part of that is that there's only one Zanes original ("Hello," on which Brousal duets). In any case, the album is less diverse musically (if no less technically and musically accomplished). Don't get me wrong, I like the CD and I'm glad to have it in my collection, but I guess unless you're a big folk music fan, I would recommend one of Zanes' other CDs (probably "House Party") as an introduction to his stuff. The CD is best for kids ages 3 through 7 or 8, though like all of Zanes' work, it's definitely appropriate for people of all ages. Zanes' music is available in most stores with a children's music section. Recommended.
Dan Zanes has, without a doubt, the best kids' music e-mail newsletter going. Or, at least, it's the fanciest-schmanciest. Occasionally it even includes bits of news worth passing along. His e-mail earlier this week includes this note from Zanes (or his e.e. cummings-obsessed PR-person/webmaster): "the new dz and friends family cd is finished! it's called catch that train! it will be released in mid may. in addition to that old gang of mine which includes: father goose, barbara, cynthia, colin, yoshi, wunmi, and the rubi theater company, there are guest appearances by: the blind boys of alabama, nick cave, the children of agape, the kronos quartet, and natalie merchant." So there you go. Nick Cave doesn't really strike me as a children's music artist, but neither did Philip Glass, and that turned out wonderfully on House Party, so what do I know?
Children's artists can walk a fine line between sweet and sappy. Childhood is full of wonder, and trying to convey that can lead musicians into mushy-headedness. For the most part, Milkshake avoids the Head of Mushy on their second album, Bottle of Sunshine. Milkshake, a duo from Baltimore, has two strong assets -- the sweet vocals of Lisa Mathews and the melodic and occasionally crunchy guitars of Mikel Gehl. Backed by a full band, Bottle contains a broad variety of children's pop, uptempo and down-, that does a good job of showcasing those assets. The best songs on the album are the ones that stay away from mushiness. "Woo-woo" is a fun pop song leavened with humor about playing underwater ("If you find lost treasure on the ocean floor / please bring it back up to me.") "Boom Boom" is a country-tinged tune about dancing. And while "Book of Dreams" is a sweet pop song, elegantly produced, "Sleepytown" is a simple album-closer. (Is there some sort of union rule requiring closing a kids' music album with a slow, sleep-related song? Just wondering out loud here.) As someone whose tolerance for mushy is perhaps lower than many, some tunes don't work as well for me. While I liked "Book of Dreams," "One Wish" reached too hard for the sense of wonder for my tastes and was fairly bland. And while I'm not against namechecking one's own band in song, which Milkshake does twice here, it has to be really catchy (paging Morningwood to the review, paging Morningwood to the review), which isn't quite the case here. (Still, I could see those two songs being fun for preschoolers in concert.) The album is best for kids age 3 through 7. It's available at the usual online suspects. While I recommend the album, if you like me have a low tolerance for mushy, you may want to listen to some samples online before committing to the CD.
One of my favorite scene in the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap is when the tour manager of the band Spinal Tap tells them that their Boston gig has been cancelled, but tries to soften the blow, telling them, "Don't worry, it's not a big college town." I bring this up because in looking at Jamarama's western and southwestern swing in March and April 2006, there's one city that, uh, seems to have been overlooked. Saturday, March 4 Santa Barbara, CA Arlington Theater Sunday, March 5 Long Beach, CA Terrace Theatre Saturday, March 11 Marin, CA Marin Center Sunday, March 12 San Diego, CA Spreckels Theatre Saturday, March 25 Las Vegas, NV Aladdin Resort & Casino Sunday, March 26 Fresno, CA William Saroyan Theatre Saturday, April 1 Salt Lake City, UT Ford Theatre Sunday, Apri 2 Denver, CO Paramount Theatre Saturday, April 8 Dallas, TX Nokia Theatre Sunday, April 9 Houston, TX Verizon Wireless Theater No offense to the fine folks of Fresno, but where in the name of Raffi is Phoenix on this list? We're not all senior citizens, golfers, and cacti, you know. Kids. Lots of kids. Swarming with kids. And a population bigger than any of those cities listed above (OK, the LA area deserves its shows, no quibbling there). Sigh. I'm especially disappointed because Dan Zanes is taking over from Laurie Berkner as the headliner on this swing (with the Ohmies filling in on some dates). Would really liked to have seen him...
Well, in news that I must admit didn't surprise me terribly, Grammy voters picked two relatively well-known names within two relatively unknown categories this week for the 2005 Grammys. For Best Musical Album For Children, the Grammy went to Songs From The Neighborhood - The Music Of Mister Rogers - Various Artists (Dennis Scott, producer) [Memory Lane Syndications, Inc.]. For Best Spoken Word Album For Children, the Grammy went to Marlo Thomas & Friends: Thanks & Giving All Year Long - Various Artists (Christopher Cerf & Marlo Thomas, producers) [Warner Strategic Marketing].
I got an e-mail from Laurie Berkner the other day. Well, technically speaking, it probably came from her webmaster and not from Laurie herself, but still. It said that the new Laurie Berkner DVD, We Are the Laurie Berkner Band, would be released on February 14 and come packaged with a 5-song bonus CD (4 songs previously released). And that would have pretty much been the extent of this post, except that I found the following article from Billboard, via the Arizona Repubic. In the article, we find out that... 1) Starbucks is co-releasing the DVD through its Hear Music division. 2) It'll be available at Starbucks stores. 3) Berkner's albums have sold a total of 359,000 copies. 4) The DVD will feature a song called "Mocha Mocha Grande Latte." (OK, I was kidding on that last point.)