Video Premiere: "Swimmy Swim" - Little Miss Ann

One little conversation at an Elizabeth Mitchell concert, and before you know it Jeff Giles and Bill Childs are working on a Woody Guthrie tribute album.  It's called Keep Hoping Machine Running (the title is from list of New Year's resolutions from Woody in 1942), and it's being released July 31 on Childs' Spare the Rock Records.  Appropriately enough, given the 100th anniversary of Guthrie's birth, all net proceeds from sales will benefit the Woody Guthrie Foundation.

You can read more from Jeff about the album as well as see the complete tracklist, but I think listening to Chicago's Little Miss Ann perform her contribution ("Swimmy Swim") while a little video scrapbook explains how her track came to be might be even more worthwhile.  As with many of Guthrie's songs, "Swimmy Swim" is pretty simple in its construction, but Little Miss Ann and her band do right by the track.

 Little Miss Ann - "Swimmy Swim" [YouTube]

Review: Cirque du Soleil KOOZA (June 2012, Phoenix)

It has been awhile since I saw my first (and, 'til now, my only) Cirque du Soleil show -- Mystere, the first Cirque show, if I recall correctly, to set down roots in Las Vegas.  I don't remember much about the show (of course, the web is now a big help in that regard), but I do remember being vaguely stunned as I left the theatre.   The $60 or so per ticket we paid more than a decade ago, which seemed expensive -- hey, it is expensive -- felt like a bargain after watching the show.  Some of the acrobatics of the Montreal-based troupe made the crowd gasp in ways you just don't often hear outside a sporting event.

Fast forward more than a decade, and the Canadian-based Cirque has 21 shows currently (or shortly) in performance all around the world.  This month, their show KOOZA set up their tent in the parking lot of the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale (suburban Phoenix), and my wife and I went to the show's first Phoenix-area performance.

I have no doubt that there are Cirque du Soleil fanatics who have definitive preferences for particular shows, and who rate the stories in each show as part of their overall enjoyment.

I am not that person.  Although I am generally a person who buys into highfalutin descriptions of cultural themes, the themes for Cirque shows seem a little... too much.  I mean, I buy "an adrenaline rush of acrobatics in a zany kingdom" as a tagline.  But stating that "[b]etween strength and fragility, laughter and smiles, turmoil and harmony, KOOZA explores themes of fear, identity, recognition and power" oversells the narrative a bit.  Sure, I think I could identify the sketch that touched on each of those issues.  But that's not why I (or, I suspect, most of the attendees at any given performance) attend.

It's to see the "Wheel of Death" and other feats of acrobatics which will literally take your breath away, if only temporarily.  If you want to see what the "Wheel of Death" is, you can Google for YouTube links which, theoretically, are prohibited by the terms of agreement of seeing a Cirque show.  But I wouldn't do that, not for any legal reason, but because a good part of the joy and excitement of seeing these shows is the not knowing what might happen next.  I wouldn't say it's like people who go to a NASCAR race in the ever-so-slight hope of seeing a big car crash, though watching one of the teeterboard artists fail to nail her landing was an unintentional reminder that these are people doing physical things that might not succeed.

Most of the acrobatics are stunning -- besides the "Wheel of Death," which, trust me, will cause you to gasp several times, audibly, the High Wire, Balancing on Chairs, and the totally-underselling-its-appeal-named Hoops Manipulation acts were my favorites.  To some extent, the show takes classic circus acrobatics and amps up the entertainment value by adding crazy costumes and hair extensions and innovative stage design.  I'm not saying this as a criticism -- I'm saying this to illustrate the fact that Cirque du Soleil has figured out how to improve these forms in each and every way -- both talent-wise and presentation-wise.  It's the difference, frankly, between a $25 ticket and an $80 ticket.

The clowning interludes, while occasionally pretty funny, are less essential to enjoying the show.  There's a pickpocket, an annoying tourist, a king, and a bad dog.  They are funny, occasionally employing a little PG-13 humor, and most of the time, I just wanted them to get off the stage so we could enjoy another acrobatic entertainment.

As for the story, the show "tells the story of The Innocent, a melancholy loner in search of his place in the world."  I am here to tell you that the story is irrelevant to your enjoyment of the show.  I think the Innocent found his place in the world - I just can't tell you where that place is.  And throughout the whole piece there's a six-piece band (and vocalists) playing along.  The music and lyrics are very non-specific in their sound -- it's vaguely Indian "World Music," which no doubt makes it easier to translate the show from country to country.

Should you bring your kids to KOOZA?  Well, we didn't have our kids with us, but there were more than a few slightly older kids there.  While it is no means a slow-moving show, it doesn't move fast enough to consider bringing your preschooler or more antsy young elementary school student.  Kids ages 7 and up will probably ooh and aah over the gymastic/acrobatic portions.  Their mileage for the clowning portions will vary.

As for you, kindly adult reader, KOOZA may be over the top at times, but to a large degree, that's just the point. As long as you're willing to be awed by some incredibly skilled performers, you will, in fact, be awed.  

KOOZA plays in Phoenix through July 15, and continues its tour in Houston, Dallas, and Tampa before heading to the United Kingdom in 2013.  Tickets and more information are available hereNote: My wife and I received complimentary tickets for a performance.  No review was required or expected in return for our attendance.

They Might Be Giants' "Alphabet of Nations"... For You, By You!

I was excited when this was announced a few weeks back, and I'm just as excited today.  Why? Well, it's release day for the deluxe reissue of They Might Be Giants' classic 2002 kids' album No!.  (You can pick up the album via iTunes and in many other places.)

I would suspect that many readers already have the album, but the fancy reissue also comes seven bonus tracks, including a brand new version of "Alphabet of Nations."  "Brand new," you say?  "What's wrong the original version?"  Well, nothing, but as anyone who've seen the band perform the song live (or on Conan O'Brian) can attest, the extended version they perform is just extra... awesome.

Hey, at the request of the band I've removed the download and stream of "Alphabet of Nations," but I'll be uploading another track for your downloading/streaming pleasure shortly.  I assure you, the version of "Alphabet of Nations" is worth your 99 cents at your favorite e-music-supplier.

The band's hosting a challenge on Tumblr and Twitter, crowd-sourcing images from around the world to include in a brand-new video they're creating for this new version of the song.  They're looking for you to post photos on Twitter with the hashtag #TMBGnation or tumblr at http://tmbgnation.tumblr.com/.  By July 10, they're looking from 3 photos posted from people from, or hailing from these specific countries:

Afghanistan, Algeria, Australia, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Belgium, Brunei, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Canada, Chad, China, Denmark, Dominica, Egypt, Ecuador, Fiji, France, the Gambia, Guatemala, Hungary, Iran, Japan, Kazakhstan, Libya, Mongolia, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Suriname, Turkey, Uruguay, Vietnam, Yemen, Zimbabwe.

They're looking for portraits of faces (big smiles!), flags, celebrations of culture, and/or action photos.  (And even if you're from a country not on a list, they still want to see those photos. We're all from West Xylophone, right?)  Go, go, crowdsourcing iPhone users!

 

Review: Books from The Secret Mountain

The Canadian company The Secret Mountain has published a lot of CD/book sets the past few years.  Once every three or four months, it seems, the company releases a hardcover book accompanied by a full CD of music.  At this point, they are nearly the equal of the Putumayo Kids label in terms of their ongoing release of music from around the world (at least from an American's perspective), even if the depth of their catalogue isn't yet near that of Putumayo.

Let's take a look at some recent releases to see if any might be right for your family.

Let's start with the least-recent production, The Fabulous Song.  The book (written by Don Gillmor and illustrated by Marie-Louise Gay) was actually first published in 1996.  It concerns one Frederic Pipkin, a young boy who does not take to instruments of any kind but eventually finds his own way to bring music into the world.  It is my favorite of the books here, but the music by Michelle Campagne and Davy Gallant is my least favorite of the CDs here.  The songs have a bit of pop-musical sound to them, but unlike most musicals, the songs only comment on the action without really ever moving the action along itself, and while I happen to like my share of musicals, there are no distinguishing songs here.  (More details here.)

Next up is Chicken Joe Forgets Something Important, a sequel from Trout Fishing in America to their previous Secret Mountain book, My Name Is Chicken Joe.  Frankly, I didn't give this book and CD enough attention when it first came out last fall, because when I gave it another spin recently, I was surprised (and pleased) at how well-done the songs are.  As a CD, I liked it more than what was in part a greatest hits album on the first book.  The songs have some connection to the story, but each stands alone without the other.  The story itself (the title pretty much says it all) is slight, but Stephane Jorisch returns to give the story his "happy Ralph Steadman" illustrations.  As a set (and definitely for the CD alone), I would definitely give this book the edge over Fabulous Song and I would recommend the CD by itself as well. (Details)

Moving on to more Putumayo-ish turf, Secret Mountain last fall released Songs from the Baobab.  The book itself was a massive success overseas when it was first released a decade ago, selling more than 100,000 copies.  Now the set featuring African lullabies and nursery rhymes compiled by Chantal Grosleziat comes to North America.  The book itself features evocative illustrations by Elodie Nouhen and a line or two of translated text from each song on a page or two.  (More detailed liner notes follow these fully illustrated pages.)  I am certainly no expert in the renditions, but they sounded lovely to my ears.  I would say the songs tend more toward the lullaby end of the spectrum.  (Details)

For those of you looking for a sprightlier musical trip somewhere outside of America, the latest set from the label, Songs in the Shade of the Flamboyant Tree, should fit the bill.  This collection of French Creole lullabies and nursery rhymes is more on the nursery rhyme end of the spectrum.  The songs were compiled again by Chantal Grosleziat, but illustrator Laurent Corvaisier uses a brighter, more vibrant palette (befitting the music).  I recommend both this and its African cousin -- your preference for calmer versus more active songs (and pictures) should guide your choice.  (Details)

There you go -- four sets, at least three worth further exploration.

Review: In Tents - Recess Monkey

It's time for the annual kids' music reviewer's dilemma:

How to review the new Recess Monkey album.

Some kids' music albums are just so plain bad that it is easy to mock them (if you go in for that sort of thing) or ignore them completely (my preferred approach).  Other albums have such a unique sound that describing the sound becomes the hook of the review.  And then there are the artists take their own sweet time releasing their music, which makes returning to their music almost like hearing a unique take in and of itself.

Which brings us to the Seattle trio.  They're good (scratch that first approach), have no particularly unique sound (forget the second), and are incredibly prolific (they've now recorded 8 albums in less than 8 years -- they've likely written and recorded an album in the time it's taken me to write this review -- so I guess that take on the album's out, too).  I tried dealing with this problem by writing an entire review in haiku form last year, but for the band's latest album In Tents, I'm forgoing the weird stuff in favor of a plain review.

As you might suspect from the album title, the album is a concept album about circuses, but as with their previous albums, most of which have revolved around a theme of some sort (superheroes, space, monsters), it's a loose concept.  Yes, the leadoff title track is about performing in a tent, but the following track "Popcorn" could easily be on a food-themed or movie-themed album.  Most of the songs, in other words, stand on their own (except for "The Dancin' Bear," the Beastie Boys homage which is so deliriously odd and funky that it stands, or dances, on its own).

The album starts out with a very modern sound - "Popcorn" has a modern sound, while "Sit and Spin" (Tilt-a-Whirl, natch) has a driving chorus.  But as the album progresses, it regresses sonically.  "Human Cannonbal" sounds just a bit like the Who in their more musical-minded moments.  And for much of the rest of the album ("Dancin' Bear" notwithstanding), the band returns to the Beatles sound which inspired their early work -- "Bouncy House" includes echoes of "Get Back" and "Edwina Mae" sounds like A Hard Day's Night-era music, for example, and other songs like "House of Cards" have the 1920s vaudeville sound that runs through a lot of the Fab Four's work with George Martin.

In fact, as I listened to the album, I was reminded in more ways than one of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Some of the reason are minor (the Beatles' circus costumes on the album cover suggesting this album's theme) and some larger (the wistful song "Crystal Ball" and album closer "Show on the Road" striking echoes of that album -- "Crystal Ball" even includes a "When I'm Sixty-Four" shoutout).

Dean Jones' production here is clean -- it sounds a lot like any other Recess Monkey album, sonically, albeit with a little more trombone.  (I loved, though, the production choice in "I Could See (Magically)" to fuzz up the sound at the begin and to clear it all up once the narrator gets glasses.)  And he also lets the band's natural humor show through (Mayor Monkey! Drew Holloway's manic over-singing in "Sit and Spin").

As with most Recess Monkey albums, this album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8.  You can listen to a few of the tracks at the band's homepage.  As always, the physical packaging for the album, this time featuring a backstory for the circus theme, is excellent.

There's not a lot of backstory here -- Recess Monkey makes music for kids, with joy and without pretense.  There are lots of other bands who do that, too, but few if any who do it as well.  As bands go, I'm not sure they're the Beatles of kids music -- who would want to saddle anyone with those expectations -- but when you look at the consistently high level of musical quality the band's given us over the past few years, perhaps it's not such a totally ridiculous claim.  It's a tough call, but I think In Tents is my favorite Recess Monkey album yet.  Highly recommended.

Note: I was provided a copy of the album for possible review.  Also, the band was invaluable in helping to create Hand Aid's "Felt Around the World."  But I'm a looooongtime fan.

Review: Ultramagnetic Universal Love Revolution - Mista Cookie Jar & the Chocolate Chips

Sometimes all you want is a lazy afternoon reading with your kid or playing Legos with them while rain gently falls outside.

This is not the album for those times.

Ultramagnetic Universal Love Revolution, the second album from Los Angeles' Mista Cookie Jar (and his backing band, the Chocolate Chips), is bright and shiny -- as chaotic a melange of sights, sounds, and smells as the boardwalk pier featured on the album's cover photo -- and intended to make you dance.

Just listen to the first track, "Inner Child Rock," and you'll have a pretty good idea whether the album is for you.  Mista Cookie Jar (AKA C.J. Pizarro) sings out his rapid fire lyrics while his daughter, 9-year-old Ava Flava, and Miss Mikyla chime in with background lyrics (their oft-repeated "We HEART you" is lodged in my brain for the next year at least), offset by the occasional "Let's get, let's get, let's get wild" bridge.  I find it nearly irresistible, but I admit that others might find it over the top.

There are some slightly less wild tracks -- in the liner notes for "Lover Not a Fighter," Pizarro said he "aimed to pilfer some of that Jackson 5 bubble gum-soul-funk-magic" and it's a worthy re-appropriation of the sound.  "Happy Place" is a sun-drenched groove that should be played loudly as the neighborhood kids jump around in the front yard slip-n-slide.  (If you or your kid want to double-down on the sonic craziness of "Inner Child Rock," I'd suggest tracks like "Lucas!" or "Best Day Ever EVER.") 

Lyrically... well, I think a sample from "Crystal Cave" illustrates where the lyrics sometimes go: "Inside ur heart there is a crystal cave / where the witches and the wizards invent their games. / They sew a string of sing-alongs / and tie them to the wings of swans / connectin' hearts to stars to cookie jars /in daisy-chain-trains!"  We are a long way away from songs about how to tie your shoe here, but it really fits in with the sound.

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 9.  You can listen to extended samples from the 43-minute album here.

As is the case with many good albums, Ultramagnetic Universal Love Revolution won't please everyone, and in fact some folks might downright dislike it.  But I think there are more than a handful of families who are going to absolutely adore the beats and rhymes and very palpable sense of love that pervades these dance tunes.  Me, I'm more in that second camp (and hope that everybody at least checks it out).  Recommended.