Review: Five Cent Piece - Randy Kaplan

FiveCentPiece.jpgAnother week, another bluegrass-inflected album for kids from New York City. Unlike Astrograss' more esoteric approach, Randy Kaplan folds in more traditional approaches to bluegrass on his first kids' CD, Five Cent Piece, released in November. Which isn't to say there isn't some oddness of other kinds on the album. Kaplan has released five CDs for adults, but has also taught and played for kids often. His debut CD is a mix of well-chosen (and often reworked) covers and skewed originals. Artists covered include Jonathan Richman (the winsome "I'm A Little Dinosaur"), Arlo Guthrie ("Motorcycle Song"), and Elizabeth Cotton (the timeless "Freight Train") among others. One of the best tracks on the disk is "Grape Juice Hesitation Blues," his reworking of the traditional "Hesitation Blues," which features some great Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus-style interplay between Kaplan and a ragged chorus of kids. The originals are a little odder, featuring songs about sharks in the bathtub (the spacy "Shampoo Me"), pesky mosquitos (the bluesy "Mosquito Song"), and, well, "Roaches," which features little squeally roachlike-sounds in the background. For the most part, Kaplan plays it straight and lets the music do the talking -- indeed, one of the best things about the album is the terrific musicianship, especially when they're playing traditional songs such as "Freight Train" or "Over the Rainbow." But Kaplan likes to tell stories, and so a number of songs include spoken word portions including... wait for it... "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Yes, my friends, the Stones cut has been put on a kids and family album, a decision so shocking that my wife, whose interest in music doesn't quite match mine, sputtered, "But, but, that's a classic!" For those who are worried, don't be, Kaplan has crafted a 10-minute story using only the occasional chorus for punctuation. As adventurous as the album is, it's not perfect. "Mostly Yellow (Big Bird's Song)" is a lovely but sad song about Big Bird's inner life that as amusing as it is for the parents, really doesn't fit on an album that regular (young) viewers of Sesame Street would listen to. And at a length of just under an hour, it's just too long -- the tracks aren't bad, but it's overwhelming when heard in one piece. "Mostly Yellow" aside, this is a good album for kids ages 3 through 8. You can hear samples at the album's CD Baby page. With his mixture of somewhat different arrangements traditional bluegrass and folk instrumentation, affinity for storytelling, and wide choice of covers, Randy Kaplan comes off as sort of a combination of Enzo Garcia, Bill Harley, and Elizabeth Mitchell. On Five Cent Piece, Kaplan has fashioned one of the more unusual kids and family albums of the year, good for chilly winter afternoons or late summer days. Recommended.

Baby Loves Disco = Kindergartner Loves Hula Hoop

Dennis Miller had a riff many years ago about dancers who take up too much room on the dance floor by acting out song lyrics to, for example, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." The riff ended with the great (though profane) punchline, "Hey, lady, ain't no [------] dance floor wide enough!" I think our daughter may grow up to be that dancer. We went to the latest Baby Loves Disco party in Scottsdale this weekend, my daughter and I. Despite the catchy name, we left our younger one -- the one who is actually in diapers -- at home. When we got there, we saw they weren't kidding about bringing the nightclub experience to a whole new crowd -- yes, folks, there was a line at the door and a bouncer. Never too early to teach exclusion! Thankfully it was only because the ticket counter was just inside the door and they could only let a couple families in at a time to pay or get their names checked off the pre-paid list. Once inside, we were greeted with quite possibly the most fabulous sight possible for my daughter -- huge bowls of pretzels and chips ready for the snacking. She was so overwhelmed that she completely missed the large pile of juice boxes, which probably would have pushed her over the edge had she seen them just then. As we moved to the dancefloor, it was interesting to note the, well, relative lack of dancing going on. I mean, there were a number of people, old and young, on the floor, but my expectations of high levels of groove-thang-shaking were not met. I guess I just figured the kids would be dancing all over the place, but they weren't, really. They were, however, amusing themselves with egg shakers, scarves, a few feather boas, and, joy of joys, hula hoops. My daughter spent most of her time on the dancefloor hula-hooping, usually on the hips, sometimes on the neck. She is very good at this. But no matter how good you are, hula-hooping requires a... wide berth on the part of others. And let me tell you, the dancefloor wasn't some Billy Bob's mega-floor. It's amazing that some kid didn't get donked in the head with a spinning hoop. (Or, at least, didn't whine about it if he did.) But she had a blast -- heck, she won a prize for best dancer ages 3 and up for her seriously devoted hula-hooping. In the end, I think BLD's advertising ("Saturday afternoon is the new Saturday night") implies that parents can retain a level of sophistication that they probably can't. (I'd guess that 90% of the adult attendees' attire would be unacceptable at the club later that night.) Having said that, the whole experience was sorta like one of the best playdates ever. Chillout areas with books and toys, cookies and snacks wherever you turn, and a funky house. The music? The icing, not the cake.

Review in Brief: We Wanna Rock! - Thaddeus Rex

WeWannaRock.JPGA former participant on the PBS show The Kids Zone, Illinois-based Thaddeus Rex now performs over 200 concerts each year, many of them for schools. On his second album for kids, We Wanna Rock!, released earlier this month, Thaddeus Rex tackles subjects of concern to elementary school students -- fear of moving, spending time with family, or getting dog poop stuck on the shoe (admittedly, probably not the most common concern of most people). The best songs speak straight to kids -- the palpable fear of moving to a new place in the pop-rock "I Don't Want to Go," or trying not to think about not going to sleep in "The Moon Is Rising." Unfortunately, there are relatively few compelling musical backgrounds to the lyrics. Occasionally some interesting musical motifs occur -- the sinewy melody and bass line on the folk-rocker "Slimy Green & Kind of Funny" (with words from fifth-grader Lauren Walton) -- but they're the exception, not the rule. Thaddeus has a slightly odd singing voice that makes me think he's trapped between a rocker's voice and a Broadway voice, and whatever the case, I don't think the songs showcase his voice well. The album's most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 8, and you can hear samples at Thaddeus Rex's website (click on "T-Rex's Jukebox"). There are lots of lesson plans available for T-Rex songs, and so your kids may find themselves enjoying the songs, should he perform in an assembly. But you, the parent, will probably take a pass on repeated spins.

Wave Goodbye to Wiggle Greg?

I'm not sure what sort of world this is in which I get news about the Wiggles from Idolator, but they've alerted readers to this article in this morning's Melbourne's The Age newspaper, which reports that lead singer Greg Page (the one in yellow, natch) will be leaving the group due to increasing -- and unexplained -- bouts of fainting and lethargy. I'm sure I could make a bad joke if I wanted to, but I really don't like to joke about unexplained medical problems. So I'll just content myself to be amused with the headline in The Age: Wiggle tipped to ditch yellow skivvy. Headline writing is a lost art, my friends. (And get well soon, Greg.)

Review: Alphabet Songs Vol. 3 (Rabbit Run) - Steve Weeks

AlphabetSongsVol3.jpgColorado-based musician Steve Weeks takes a decidedly different approach on his third kids' album, Rabbit Run, as he retells the classic 1960 novel by John Updike... for kids! Uh, no. Released earlier this month, Alphabet Songs Vol. 3 (Rabbit Run) is actually the final in Weeks' series of CDs drawing inspiration from the alphabet as its lyrical source. With 9 songs, one each for letters R through Z, Weeks adheres to the theme to varying degrees. The opening title track features Weeks' nifty bluegrass playing accompanying a story of how water flows from the smallest of tributaries (the "Rabbit Run") all the way to the ocean. The theme of interconnectedness is one that Weeks comes back to on other songs on the disk, such as Barenaked Ladies-styled-rap on "Someday" or the sweet mid-tempo folker "Yellowjacket," which had darn well better be on the next Putumayo Folk Playground collection, should one be in the works. (I also need to mention "Up!," another favorite of mind, a very positive slice of kids' folk-pop.) Not every song works well. At 6 1/2 minutes long, "Take the Tinkertown Trolley" goes on too long, which wouldn't be bad if the musical accompaniment didn't sound a little cheesy. (Weeks plays every instrument by himself on the disk -- this song shows the potential limitations of such an approach. I tended to prefer his slightly simpler, more bluegrass-y tunes.) And while I give Weeks credit for going whole hog on "Xavier Xerxes Xenophane X," and certainly setting a record for most words starting with the "x" sound on a single song, it doesn't really hold up to repeated listenings. It's as if he decided that was it for the alphabet theme, as "Yellowjacket" and the African-accented "Zed and Zoey" have very few "Y's" and "Z's" in them. The length and story-telling nature of many of the songs (what better way to get words starting with a desired letter than to create names?) makes the 42-minute CD most appropriate for kids ages 6 through 10. You can samples at the album's CD Baby page. With a few less-than-perfect tracks, I don't think this will be quite the classic Rabbit, Run was as a novel. Still, there are enough strong tracks on Alphabet Songs Vol. 3 to make it a CD worth your investigation. And now that Weeks has completed his alpha-odyssey, he's hopefully figured what works best for him and is free to go wherever his muse leads. As the narrator sings at the end of "Zed and Zoey," "this is not the end." I hope not. Recommended.