Radio Playlist: New Music July 2012

I'm trying something a little bit different this time around with these radio playlists -- instead of posting an update to my Live365 station as I did for June, I've posted a Spotify update.  It's limited, of course, in that if an artist hasn't chosen to post a song on Spotify, I can't put it on the list (though I do have a list of stuff that would've posted had it been there -- see the end).  

Check out the list here or go right here if you're in Spotify.

**** New Music July 2012 (July Kindie Playlist) ****

Stephen Michael Schwartz – California Grey

The Cat's Pajamas – Funky Bears

Elizabeth Mitchell – Little Sugar

They Might Be Giants – Violin (Bonus Live Version)

Richard Younger – Barefootin'

Lunch Money – Gingerbread Man

Randy Kaplan – They're Red Hot

Playtime Music – Row Row Row Your Boat

Ozomatli – Flip Flap 

[the non-Spotify list]

The Zucchini Brothers - Crazy Life

New Raspberry Bandits - Fine Country

Professor Banjo - John Henry

Forest Sun - Trampoline

Review: Spicy Kid - Lunch Money

One of the weird upshots of the rewiring of the relationship between musicians and cultural curators is that they're often friends.  Sure, they could have always been friends in the real-world sense of things, but with the advent of Facebook, the number of "friends" available has increased exponentially.  The cultural curator breed of "critic" is dying rapidly while "blogger" (for lack of a better term) has displaced the critic at the top of the music food tree, and while I'm not sure that critics were ever more "objective" than bloggers, my perception is that bloggers are more advocates for music they favor.  This unsurprisingly leads to more friendship-based exchanges online.  And, for someone raised in the world of the "critic" and who got into this music-writing business a decade ago in part because there seemed to be few critical distinctions when it came to kids music, it definitely feels different.

Which brings us to Spicy Kid, the fourth album from South Carolina band Lunch Money.  The band is led by singer and guitarist Molly Ledford, who writes indie-rock melodies and arrangements circia 1992 in a voice that would be called wry if she didn't find it so hard to hide her general amusement and wonder.  Ledford and the band are billing this as their album about parenthood, and that's what prompted my discursion above.

You see, Molly is a "friend" of mine on Facebook (along with 300 other kids'-music-related people).  If you're not a friend of her, you might hear a song like "S.P.E.L.L.," about the well-known parental tactic to hide information and think she's giving her kids too much credit ("When you s-p-e-l-l in front of me / You're calling attention to the words / You're putting me on alert / It's either bad news or dessert").  But Ledford has posted too many status updates indicating that her kids are sharp cookies (and spicy kids) that unless she's the James Frey of autobiographical kindie rock, these are very much inspired by real life.  And that true life dimension lends the songs additional resonance above and beyond the plain text of the lyrics.

What I find remarkable about the album is that she hits the topics of parenthood in a way that honors both the parents' and kids' perspectives.  The album's title track celebrates spicy kids without denying the feeling of frustration such kids can produce in their parents.  "Awake" is nominally about a child sneaking down the hallway to see if her mom is awake, but it also works from the perspective of a parent sneaking down the hallway to see if his son's awake.  And while there are songs that are as strong expressions of a parent's love for a child as you'll hear this year (see: "Translator," which is pitch-perfect), it's the empathy of both perspectives that helps it avoid mawkishness.  It's like the album is from everybody's favorite Aunt Molly.  Which isn't to diminish the role of her band (which now officially number four in total as the former trio has added Russell Ramirez on trombone), who give Molly's words room to breathe, except when they need to rock out.  Just that it's Aunt Molly's house.

The album will be most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7.  You can hear the album on the band's music page.  Also, as usual, I love the design and layout of the band's album packaging, courtesy of Ledford's husband and bandmate, Jay Barry.

If Spicy Kid works in a slightly minor key, less a celebration of parenthood than a diary, that doesn't mean it's less joyful than any of its predecessors, and fans (or fans-to-be) of those predecessors should be every bit as enamored of this new album.  As for me, I'll hope that Ledford one day writes the book (non-fiction or otherwise) that chronicles life as a parent (or a kid) that's so obviously somewhere inside her waiting to be written.  Consider it advice from a friend, Molly.  Highly recommended.

Note: I received a copy of this album for possible review.

Review: Little Seed - Elizabeth Mitchell

Here's my ugly Woody Guthrie secret: I never much liked Woody Guthrie's music.  Not the songs themselves, just their presentation on record.  Neither of his two albums for kids he recorded in 1947 and released in 1956 -- Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child and Nursery Days -- get much play in our house.  To my ears, it almost sounds like Woody was just rushing to get these recorded, and nobody would suggest that these 65-year-old recordings of Woody and his guitar are sonically gorgeous.

The songs themselves, however?  Those are great.  They just needed someone to give them a little tender loving care.

Who better than Elizabeth Mitchell, possessor of one of kids' music most gentle and empathetic voices?  In the decade-plus she's been recording kids' music, she and her husband Daniel Littleton have consistently been one of the best interpreters of songs, drawing both from the folk tradition as well as more modern tunes (Velvet Underground, anyone?).  Each of her previous albums have included versions of Woody Guthrie songs and now on Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie she mixes those versions with some newly recorded tracks for what is now an essential Guthrie-related album, a nice tie-in to the bigger Woody 100th birthday celebrations.

The seven new tracks here are every bit as good as the five that have come before.  "Bling Blang," quite possibly my favorite Woody kids' song, gets a sparse backing arrangement of little more than banjo, ngoni, and knee slaps that is quietly and intensely joyful.  ("Why, Oh Why?," almost certainly my least favorite Woody kids' song -- and that's being generous -- is almost tolerable to me.)  I love Clem Waldmann's percussion on "Rattle My Rattle" and the simplicity of Mitchell and Littleton on "Merry-Go-Round," reminiscent of those lo-fi afternoon recordings on You Are My Flower lo these many years ago.

These songs are most appropriate for kids ages 0 through 5, though kids raised on Mitchell's recordings (ahem) will enjoy them beyond kindergarten.  As alluded to above, five of the tracks on the twelve-track album are previously released and on a 29-minute album, that's no small percentage, and really its only downside.  (The mp3 version on Amazon, currently just $4.99, may be an acceptable compromise, though that would be mean forgoing the as-usual excellent physical packaging from Smithsonian Folkways.)

Longtime Elizabeth Mitchell fans will love the new recordings on Little Seed, and if you're a newcomer to Mitchell's music for families, it's a sweet half-hour introduction to the kids' artist most visible folk interpreter.  She does right by Woody Guthrie.  Definitely recommended.

Review: No! (Deluxe Edition) - They Might Be Giants

There may be better kids music albums released since the turn of the (twenty-first) century, there have been better-selling ones as well, but a pretty strong case can be made for saying that No! by They Might Be Giants is the single most important and most influential kids music album of the past decade or so.

Yes, today's kindie superstars like Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner, Justin Roberts, Ralph's World, and more had all released an album (or more) for families before TMBG's first album foray out of the world of pints of beer and into the world of half-pints of milk.  And other artists like Trout Fishing in America, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer (and many others preceding them) had been releasing albums for years.  But I think in terms of cultural impact (and, as a result, the impact on the genre itself), nothing matched that of the yellow-covered collection from Brooklyn's rockers.

The band is celebrating the tenth anniversary of the album's summer 2002 release with a deluxe edition of the album, adding on 7 bonus tracks, including one newly-recorded expanded version of a TMBG classic.  (More on that in a moment.)  It's easy to look back and say that the move into kids music was an obvious one for the band -- their songs often had a playful melodic sense and even though many of their songs had a darker undertone, some of their biggest hits ("Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)") were completely kid-friendly.  But at the time, lots of people wondered exactly what the band was thinking, reaching for a kids' audience.

It was only after the album outsold their previous release (Mink Car, for adults, and released on September 11, 2001) that the band -- and the rest of the musical world -- realized that this was a genre that held much more financial and creative potential.  As the band's fans (like me) had grown up and become parents, the selections of kids music available to us were limited, and even more limited in terms of their sound.  With No!, the band thrust into some small part of the mainstream the idea that musical sounds for kids could be every bit as broad (and loud) as that for adults.

No! begat the band's deal with Disney, which yielded three excellent albums and lots of visibility for the band.  It also launched dozens of albums by musicians with names small and large.  No matter how long their creators had been working on them, I don't think TV shows like Yo Gabba Gabba! or Jack's Big Music Show or Imagination Movers get greenlit without the Brooklyn duo showing there was a market for this music and parental attitude.  I don't know if it is "cool" to make music for kids (and I don't really care personally), but it is no longer uncool and for an industry that is still often image-based, that is a not insignificant victory.

As for the album itself, it's so embedded in my brain (and the brains of my family), that trying to listen to the album again and listen critically after literally hundreds of spins is difficult.  My original review of the album, originally written nearly a decade ago, and one of the first posted to the website nearly seven years ago, while clunky in its narrative, still hits the key points: somewhat restricted instrumentation, skewed world viewpoint, and some excellent songs.  In retrospect (and after listening to maybe a couple thousand kids albums since then), one of its strongest aspects is the lack of any overt lesson songs.  It's not quite "no hugging, no learning," but the album's chief virtue is its own inquisitiveness and adventurousness, rather than any message within any specific song.

As for the bonus tracks, none are essential save one, a newly recorded version of "Alphabet of Nations."  This is a track, sharp listeners will note, that didn't make an appearance for another 3 years, on the album's follow-up, Here Come the ABCs.  No matter -- the Johns have taken their song, barely a minute long in its original form, and recorded the 2:30-version they play live.  More countries, even more fun.  The other six tracks are live versions of songs, some from No!, a couple from other albums.  They're good tracks, but none are essential -- feel free to download "Alphabet" and any of the other tracks whose samples move you.

That assumes, of course, that you already have the original.  If you don't, I'm not entirely sure how you've found your way to this site (or why you've read all this way).  If you don't, finish reading this paragraph and go get the thing.  Because in addition to being a culturally significant album, it's also a damn good one, too.  Inventive and witty, with no small amount of danceability.  Most days I'd argue it's not TMBG's best kids' album, but there are also days when I think that it is.  That's no small bar to leap.  I'm reading too much into this, but the fact that the next to last track on the original album is essentially kids' music's "A Day in the Life" makes No! the Sgt. Pepper's of kids' music.  Highly recommended.

Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review, as well as offered the opportunity to premiere tracks from the album.

Interview: Jack Forman (Recess Monkey)

If Recess Monkey aren't the hardest-working band in kids music, then there's some other band who's figured out how break the 24-hours-in-a-day rule.  The Seattle trio has been cranking out a new studio yearly like clockwork, touring locally and nationally, and coming up with crazy-cool collaborative notions like Kindiependent, the Seattle-area collective of kindie rockers.

Their latest project, the recently released album In Tents, has also spurred a burst of creallaborativity (that's a word I just made up to reflect "collaborative creativity"), as it was the soundtrack for a kid-friendly circus show by Seattle-based troupe Teatro ZinZanni.

Last month bassist Jack Forman took time out during a "dingy, Kafka-esque Seattle morning" (his words, not mine), to talk about the album, the circus, and keeping things fresh when you're so busy).

Zooglobble: What are your childhood memories of the circus?

Jack Forman: I didn't go to the circus a lot.  I did go to the Ringling circus with my grandma in Indiana.  They had real Transformers and Truckosaurus, when I was 7 or 8 years old.  I've been interested in that combination of humor and darkness.

What are your favorite types of circus acts?

Oh, the contortion stuff, acrobatics, gymnasts.  There's this 11-year-old gymnast named Saffi Watson in the ZinZanni show, she's just insane.

Those are some of my favorites.  They're so good you sometimes forget they're just people.  I saw a Cirque du Soleil show recently, and when one of the trampoline gymnasts couldn't nail a landing, it was almost a good thing, because it reminded you just how hard these things are.

Yeah, there's the humanity, too.  It's refreshing to see when they've trained their whole life.

What came first - the album or the show?

The album came first -- we've been thinking about it for a couple years.  We kinda joked about it -- you know, hokey melodies for 3 year-olds, dinosaurs, clowns like you'd see at a teacher supply store.  But then we decided we wanted to steal back the idea from the cheesy preschool store and make it our own.  Give it a rich treatment, work with Dean [Jones, musician/producer].

Four months out from recording, I mentioned it to Korum [Bischoff[, who's a drummer for Johnny Bregar and who also works with Teatro ZinZanni, and before we knew it we spent 6 monhts with them working on a storyline.  Now we're so excited -- it's the coolest live show we've ever done.

So it's awesome live?

It's the first time we've played a record this fully live.  We've focursed on making our show dance-driven.  It's a pretty intense set, fully high-energy, sing-alongable.  Kids never sit and listen.  That's just what works for us. So there are a number of songs we've never played live.  For this show, we play 13 of the 15 songs from In Tents.

"Carousel" is my favorite musically, underscoring the performance.  There are 8 performers with costumes, a ballerina with 10-foot wings.  It's collaborative, complementary.  It's similar in some ways to a Flaming Lips show -- amazing visuals, interactive.  There are some moments where we're part of a larger team.  It's a dream come true.

Are there other favorites from the album?

"House of Cards," we don't do live, but the lyrics are really funny, and was the song most changed by Dean.  It started out as a ragtime song, then became a samba with a crummy Casio loop.  "Bouncy House" is really fun to play live.  You nailed the comparison to "Get Back" in your review -- yeah, even to the guest on keyboards.  (It was Drew's favorite song at some point at least.)

So you're probably the "Hardwest Working Band" in kids music... how do you keep the music and performances fresh?

Well, thank you for the premise of the question, that it's still fresh.  I was really worried a few albums ago (around Aminal House) -- how do you do it if you think it's the best you've done?  And it's been satisfying to detect growth each time.  We're playing more every year, which has helped as we've played new genres and can play new licks we couldn't do a couple years ago.  We've got 75-100 shows 'til the end of the year, but there's time to think about next year.  Maybe a concept record, maybe something more loose.

We really just enjoy each other creatively.

Other things you're doing to help with that?

On the business stuff, I took a year off to be with [my son] Oscar.  I do the booking and other stuff.  It gives Drew and Daron time to have more creative energy.  That's worked, I think.  It's helped to preserve the artistic core of the band.

What's next?

We're playing a lot -- a lot of time on the road with library shows and on the East Coast.  We'll probably add some circus shows. [Note: They're playing a handful of shows in August and September.]  And we're thinking about the new record -- themes, song ideas.

Photo by Kevin Fry

Review: Brave

I am a big fan of Disney Pixar movies, having seen every one of their movies in the theatre, dating back to Toy Story, a number of years before I had kids, and even their shorts made for computer graphics geeks conventions more than 20 years ago.
So reviewing Brave, the latest effort from the company, is akin to me reviewing a kids musician whose albums-for-kids-and-families I'd been listening to alongside Nirvana.  It's a different frame of reference from most media for kids I take in.
The short version of the review: Brave is a good movie, about the in the middle of the pack of Pixar movies, the scariest of all of them, but with less character development than most.
The slightly longer version: The most basic of plot summaries.  Princess Merida is an ace shot with the bow and arrow, and opposed to the plan of her mother the Queen to marry her off to a suitor to help bring peace to the region.  Merida takes things into her own hands to save her from this fate, which produces way more complications than she, her family, or indeed this reviewer, could forsee.
That's right, one of the best parts of the movie is that the second-act plot development is genuinely surprising.  To say more would ruin the surprise, but the external conflict is not one you're probably expecting.  The internal, emotional conflict -- the heart of any Pixar movie -- is easier to spot, and while the movie dramatizes it OK, I never felt sufficiently invested in any character except Merida -- somewhat -- to fully latch on.
Of course, that may in part be a gender thing -- my wife and Miss Mary Mack loved the movie more than I, whereas I thought the short that preceded the movie, "La Luna," about three generations of (male)... janitors (for lack of a better word) said many the same things about parenting and self-determination that Brave did, but did it with more humor and far fewer words.  It was something that particularly struck me the second time I saw the movie.
[Side note: As a music reviewer, movie-reviewing is an odd beast.  Whereas I often listen to an album five or six times in the process of writing a review, notes by my side, movie reviews are done based on one viewing, in the dark, with all electronic devices sequestered by a movie company worried about electronic leaks.  Not quite sure how those movie reviewers manage it, aside from trying to jot down notes on a darkened pad of paper.]
Which isn't to say that Brave isn't funny, either.  The witch whose assistance sets the conflict into motion is an absolute hoot and the antics of Merida's younger siblings will keep the younger siblings in your household amused.  But often in Pixar movies the humor is rooted in emotional truth (think of Nemo's dad's neurotic ramblings) and here it can feel like the diversion from the story at hand.  I would also note that some of the scenes are pretty intense and the 3-year-old who loved Cars may not be ready for this.
I'm not being entirely fair to the movie.  It was fun, I recommend it, and I'm only sounding down because the bar set by Pixar for its other movies is so high.  If this movie came out from any other studio, it would be lauded unreservedly.  I just wish I could have felt even more attachment to the characters.
Note: I was invited to attend a press preview showing by Disney; I also saw the movie a second time, paid for by me.