Parents are familiar with serendipitous combinations -- peanut butter and jelly, Bert and Ernie, diapers and the Diaper Genie. But some combinations aren't nearly as obvious. Brave Combo is Texas band that plays polka (among other things) and Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer have been making kids music for 20 years. You wouldn't necessarily think that they would be making music together, but in All Wound Up!they have made one energetic album that should get your child dancing. (Warning: The Surgeon General has recommended that you do not play this album right before bedtime.) The songs are lots of fun and cover a broad range of styles, helpfully listed in the liner notes. Some songs are Fink & Marxer originals -- "I Will Never Clean Up My Room" is an amusing tale of one child whose recalcitrance pays off in interesting ways. Some songs are hearty renditions of public domain and traditional songs (including, yes, "De Colores," which makes this literally the 5th or 6th version on our CD shelf). Ironically, the favorite song of mine and my daughter is the one Brave Combo-penned song, "Spaghetti," and enthusiastic tribute to restaurant pasta that ends with three or four overlapping musical lines. As with any good music, you can play either of these albums for kids of all ages, but kids from 4 to 8 years of age would probably appreciate them best. The record is on the Rounder label, available in the usual online suspects and in the "real world."
What is it with Chicago and the abundance of good music for children out of that city? OK, it's probably the incredibly dense and relatively affluent population in the Loop that makes it possible to create a niche (and living) for yourself by performing kids' music. See, for example, Justin Roberts. Roberts, like Ralph's World's Ralph Covert, tried for a few years to make music for adults, except Roberts did so in Minneapolis. Somewhere along the line, however, Roberts moved to Chicago and eventually turned his attention to making children's music. Kids and their parents are the luckier for it. His third album, Yellow Bus, has a lot of rollicking tunes and some sweet slower songs (at the end of the CD -- I think this must be required by some sort of international children's music CD protocol). If you find Ralph's World just a little too saccharine for your tastes, Roberts is less so. Roberts' voice reminds me a lot of James Taylor's, but his songs are definitely more upbeat and uptempo than "Sweet Baby James." There are enough gently humorous twists in the lyrics to amuse adults. Some songs, like "One Little Cookie" (my favorite song on the CD) almost seem like they written to amuse the parents, not the kids. Roberts' songs have definite narratives and as a result violate my two-minute maximum rule. But I can definitely see how older kids (4 to 9) would enjoy listening to the songs. You can get the CD at Hear Diagonally (Roberts' label), or the usual suspects (Amazon and CDBaby).
As a parent of a pre-schooler, I've heard lots of CDs with pretty simple lyrics. "Row, row, row your boat" may be a model of Zen equanimity to some with a Matrix-like philosophical underpinning, but, really, it's about rowing your boat downstream. Over and over and over again. This is not to say that simple lyrics are bad. Just that they've been the norm thus far in my infant/toddler/preschooler parental music experience. So it takes some adjustment on my part to listen to music obviously geared toward older kids. Lyrically, the new CD from Eric Herman and the Invisible Band, Monkey Business, has some moments of inspired weirdness, which I mean as high praise. For example, the song "The Monkeys" tells the familiar story (to thirty-somethings and forty-somethings, perhaps) of four monkeys named "Mick and Dave and Mike and Pete" who sang in a band, and were accused of not even playing their instruments. The song concludes with lyrics such as "I'm in love... I'm a banana eater" and "Take the last vine to Clarkville." Another song, "Don't Bother Any Butterflies," works in a nice Beatles reference in an appropriate place. So lyrically the album works in enough sly references and humor to amuse both the children and the adults. I think this CD works best (for adults at least) when Herman is telling a simple story or just singing -- "In the Box," the uptempo song that starts the CD is a fun song about cleaning up. The two slow songs at CD's end -- "The Hero of Your Dreams" and "Rest Easy Now" -- are sweet, slower songs appropriate for CD's end. Less successful for me were storytelling songs in which Herman assumes the voice of pirates or a robot. I can see six- and seven-year-olds really enjoying those songs, especially in concert or on a video, but I think their parents (or, at least, this one) won't enjoy them nearly as much on this CD. Kids age 5 through 8 would probably enjoy this CD the most. You can buy the CD through online stores such as Amazon or CDBaby, or through Herman's website.