Review: Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures / Songs from the New Testament - Why Not Sea Monsters?

For many artists, children's music is a side project. If you're Justin Roberts, however, you're already a children's music artist, so what's your side project? It's recording as Why Not Sea Monsters? with frequent collaborator Liam Davis. In late 2005, Roberts and Davis released two Why Not Sea Monsters CDs -- Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures and Songs from the New Testament. Most of you will recognize that these albums have a distinctly... Biblical aspect to them. (My readers, they're sharp.) Roberts was commissioned to write many of these songs by Augsburg Fortress Publishers, he wrote a few more when deciding to record the album, and added a couple covers. To put in context my review of the album's music, I should explain to you my history with Christian music. Which is to say, virtually none. Aside from my U2 albums (upon which some churches are basing entire services), the only Christian music album I've ever owned was Amy Grant's Unguarded, and I didn't buy it for the praise music. I bought it because the music was good. The message was secondary. (That's still the case today, even though I'm now an active member of a mainline Protestant church.) For the most part, the music here is good. Those of you expecting Meltdown! Bible Stories, as Roberts and Davis dial back some of the tempo and layering of instruments found on that album. Instead, they're content to play mostly midtempo acoustical songs in the manner of "Roller in the Coaster" off Way Out or "Koala Bear Diner" off Meltdown!. Given that many of these songs may end up in Sunday School curricula, the fact that many of these songs are little more than guitar and drums and/or bass, the simplicity is appropriate. (Each of the 35-or-so-minute discs include chords and lyrics.) The best songs are those where Roberts lets his humor shine and he puts his own spin on stories so familiar that most people, Christian or not, would recognize them. On the sweet and poppy "Why Not a Spark?," Roberts' narrator tells of God choosing what to bring forth at the Creation, but he keeps getting ahead of himself ("On the fifth day / God said, why not sea monsters / Why not starfish and lobsters / why not airplanes over water / Wait that's later!"). Or Daniel in the lion's den who beckons the lion with "Here kitty kitty / Won't you come kitty kitty" ("Here Kitty Kitty"). As a whole, Roberts has written Christian music without much trace of sappiness. I found the songs on Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures more enjoyable, and maybe that's because my raised-not-in-Sunday-School theological foundations are pretty weak and I was drawn to the more familiar stories in the Old Testament. Hebrew Scriptures also has the advantage of having Roberts cover Craig Wright's "Where Were You?," a beautiful hymn ("Where were you when I crafted you a language... / So you could live and die with dignity / And shake your fist with poetry, imagining creation from the first") for which Roberts and Davis pull out all the instrumental tricks (strings, for example) they've otherwise left in the bag. It's an absolutely gorgeous song. On the other hand, New Testament's stories are less familiar and the songs aren't as compelling ("Lydia" has the lyric "Her name was Lydia / Our hearts will never be rid of ya," which, I'm sorry, bugs the heck out of me). Biblical songs can probably be sung at any age, but I think the morals and religious precepts contained within the songs are most appropriate for kids aged 3 through 10. You can hear samples by going through the Sea Monsters website. In the end, this is a Christian music album, and there's no two ways around it. Having said that, I think you just need a basic Christian belief system (regardless of whether you attend church regularly) to enjoy the CDs. [And, as a reader subsequently pointed out to me, the Hebrew Scriptures CD is appropriate for persons of the Jewish faith as well.] Regardless of your faith, if you're not sure these are for you, start off with Hebrew Scriptures. Recommended.

Interview: Justin Roberts

The one thing I discovered from teaching preschool is you shouldn't have a preconceived notion of what kids will respond to. So I don't try to guess. -- Justin Roberts With three CD releases in the past six months (the highly acclaimed Meltdown! and two "Why Not Sea Monsters?" scripture-related CDs with collaborator Liam Davis) and a very active 2006 touring schedule, Justin Roberts has been a very busy man as of late. Still, Justin must have exemplary time-management skills as he provided thoughtful responses to the questions below. Read on to find out which characters in Roberts' songs have echoes of Justin himself, who he's trying to please when writing songs, and what rocking out with kids is more fun than. And thanks again to Justin for the interview. ****************** When did you realize that you were going to make making kids' music your career? I put out Great Big Sun in 1997 right as I was entering graduate school at the University of Chicago. I had no intention at that time of becoming a kids music performer. However, after finishing my masters in religious studies, I decided rocking out with kids was a lot more fun than studying Sanskrit. I stand by that statement today. How much of your music is based on memories from your own childhood compared to watching kids as an adult? I take a lot of inspiration from my own childhood, little memories and events that I use as building blocks. But sometimes I just make it all up. I think when I'm writing a song I try to get into the characters head and tell his or her story. In the same way that I would when writing a song for adults. So, while I might be inspired by the kids in my neighborhood cranking out chalk art, the character in the song develops as the story comes out.

This Week: Second City Children's Music

Doesn't quite have the ring of Second City Television, but it's pretty good stuff, anyway. Justin Roberts, Ralph's World, and more, all this week. If you haven't seen it, read the review of The Terrible Twos' If You Ever See An Owl below. Great stuff. And if you missed my interview with Brady Rymer, it's worth your time. Thanks as always for reading.

Review: If You Ever See An Owl - The Terrible Twos

The Terrible Twos are a side project once removed. Singer-songwriter Matt Pryor, of the emo band the Get Up Kids, formed the New Amsterdams as a side project with a more alt-country sound. With The Terrible Twos (the New Amsterdams to a man), Pryor has shifted his subject matter back maybe 15 years, targeting the young nieces and nephews of the New Amsterdams fans. And with If You Ever See An Owl, Pryor and his band have crafted an album that will entertain those nieces and nephews along with their parents and aunts and uncles. Melodically, it's reminiscent of alt-country/Americana-pop artists like the Old 97s, Rhett Miller, and early Ryan Adams, with some Death Cab for Cutie and hints of Wilco thrown in for good measure. (Obviously, it's most like the New Amsterdams themselves.) Acoustic rock of tempos both fast and slow, melodies wrapping their way around your brain. The uptempo "When I Get To Eleven," about a boy's acceptance of growing older, makes counting to 11 a lot more fun than it has any right to be. The love song to a little girl named "Vivian" is worthy of lovesick Miller or Adams. And "A Rake, A Broom, A Mop, A Shovel," just like They Might Be Giants' "Violin" turns a very angular song into something enjoyable. Lyrically, the 32-minute album covers ground familiar to many kindergarteners -- math, burping and being polite, the problems of a birthday too close to Christmas ("Caroline, don't worry about birthday time / Don't think that on 22 / There's none for you / It's just not true" on the shiny "Caroline"). It's unclear if Barney was the inspiration for "We Can All Get Along With Dinosaurs," but a purple dinosaur stars in a treacle-free song about tolerance. Elsewhere the lyrics target the parents as much as the kids (the disappearing baby of "The Little Houdini," the kid in the driving "Pizza and Chocolate Milk" who says "Don't try to force me to eat vegetables I hate / You may think I'm kidding / That I won't win / If I keep screaming you'll cave in.") But throughout the album there runs a feeling of love and affection for the subject matter (and kids who serve as the inspiration) that distinguishes the album from many others. Kids aged 4 through 10 are most likely to enjoy the subject matter and the occasionally slow-paced song. The Terrible Twos' website has two downloads ("When I Get To Eleven" and "Caroline"), while their Myspace page has four more songs. Normally I'd mention where the album is available for purchase, but here's the sad part -- due to unspecified release issues, the album is currently only available at New Amsterdams shows. I can only think of Wilco's troubles in getting their terrific album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot released after getting dropped by their own label. It took a great deal of effort before the album saw the light of day and attracted great praise, perhaps more than it otherwise would have. If You Ever See An Owl deserves not only a release but lots of fanfare to accompany that release, because this is an album that's going to make lots of kids and parents very happy. Highly recommended.

Crosseyed and Painless

David Byrne recently posted a few thoughts on the past, present, and future of album art. Byrne's main point? We shouldn't necessarily mourn the loss of album art (which was often designed without the artist's input) with the rise of the iPod et al. Bryne posits a future in which recorded music is free while graphic designers develop ways to entice those listeners to pay for other stuff (merchandise, etc.) associated with the artist. (Thanks to Stereogum for the original reference.) What does this have to do with children's music? I don't know whether many children's music artists spend much time considering album art. Even if they do (and they probably do), the results often doesn't show that. Raffi's early albums, while pretty darn good, could hardly be considered to have great album art. Those covers are pretty good compared to some I've seen. Aside from the Wiggles, who have very consistent art direction (THE WIGGLES! SMILING! FUN, BRIGHT COLORS!), there aren't a lot of kids' artists whose art direction I love. Dan Zanes is a conspicuous exception (it helps if your brother-in-law is an artist), and there are some other exceptions, too. (The packaging of Lunch Money's Silly Reflection is fabulous, for example. By the way, do you have that album yet? Why not? Go!) I think much of children's music is trapped behind packaging that screams "you, the adult, will tolerate this and that's all." And I think that may explain partially why certain albums do or don't do well. Flipping through the small kids' music section at your local Borders... what are you going to choose? If you're trying to decide what to give as a gift for your niece's 4th birthday, what are you going to choose? How about looking at covers online? (Yes, I realize that, considering the current plainness of this website, this is a bit "pot-calling-the-kettle-black.") While bad album art won't always win (Raffi's CDs are still very popular), it takes an awesome album to overcome that art. While Byrne may be right that album art in general may fall by the wayside, I think that day is further away for kids' music than for most music. And just because I dig the Talking Heads, here's a page with some Talking Heads audio samples. The obvious choice for this site is "Stay Up Late," a funky tune from Little Creatures, but how can you not listen to something from Remain In Light? Go have fun. What's your favorite children's music album cover/packaging?

Review: Paws Claws Scales and Tales - Monty Harper

We at Zooglobble love librarians. We especially love children's librarians. Turning on kids to the excitement of reading (and listening) -- way cool. If you're a children's librarian and you're not aware of Monty Harper, you should be. Harper has carved himself out a niche writing albums filled with library-friendly children's music. His latest album, 2006's Paws Claws Scales and Tales, is another album specifically targeted to the Collaborative Summer Learning Program, a "grassroots consortium of states working together to provide high-quality summer reading program materials for children at the lowest cost possible for their public libraries." All of which is very nice in an "isn't reading wonderful" sort of way, but you're asking, is it any good? And the answer is, yes, it is good. Even if you're not a children's librarian. Now, Harper's subject matter from which to draw lyrics is narrowly constructed -- talk about pets and reading/libraries. It's a very square peg he's trying to pound into the round hole of good music. It's a testament to Harper's skill as a lyricist and storytelling that the references to reading typically don't come off as sounding overly forced. The title track refers to four popular animal characters in children's literature and each verse should be fun for kids as they guess which character Harper's singing about (a conceit Harper's used on previous albums). "Villa Villekulla Hula" sings about Pippi Longstocking while the peppy "Dog Books" refers to a few classic canine-related tales. Harper really shines, however, in those songs which he's not trying to sing about both pets and libraries. My favorite track is the country-ish, inspired-by-a-true-story "It's Hard To Love a Reptile," which would be a fabulous song on any album and includes the classic lyrics "It's hard to love a reptile / When you know that she don't love you back / When your gazes connect and you start to suspect / She's been thinking of you - as a snack!" "Eleanor Gerbil" is as close Harper can get to the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" without paying Michael Jackson royalties. "Hummingbird Hum" is a sweet Beatlesque tune sung with his daughter. (As for "Fred's Frog Flippy," about a frog who just won't hop, I would've much preferred it if Harper had taken the opportunity to write a Talking Heads homage called "Making Flippy Hoppy.") In general, the music is kids' pop-rock. The enhanced CD includes some bonus tracks, but the real reason to use the enhanced CD is to read Harper's detailed songwriting notes for each song. The care with which Harper constructs his songs and especially his lyrics is evident. He's also open about where he would've liked to have done more. (For example, on "Eleanor Gerbil" he mentions how a real string quartet would've sounded much better than the synthesizers employed on the track, and it's true that one of the CD's few weaknesses is the mostly synthesizer-driven nature of the sound.) Given the reading-focused nature of the lyrics (which are extensive), I'd recommend the 36-minute CD for kids ages 4 through 9. You can hear samples at the Reading Songs website. If you're a children's librarian, I highly recommend Paws Claws Scales and Tales, even if you're not participating in the CSLP. If you're not a children's librarian, I still think you and your kids will like the album, which is fun musically and sophisticated lyrically. Recommended.