Many months ago, I exchanged e-mails with Gregory Hollow Tree of the L.A.-based the Hollow Trees -- known to his kin as Greg McIlvaine -- about what lay ahead for the band. He said what lay ahead was "the Hollow Trees v. 2.0." He wasn't kidding. What used to be a pretty small band has now morphed into the kids' music equivalent of the Polyphonic Spree or We're From Barcelona -- I'd checked out their new lineup 3 or 4 weeks ago and was shocked to see all the names listed there. Well, since I last visited their website they've announced their new CD -- Welcome to Nelsonville -- and posted 3 mp3s: go here to listen to the fun traditional "Ain't Gonna Rain No More" (a sequel in spirit to their first album's "Jack Was Every Inch a Sailor"), a shuffling Hollow Tree original "Hootenanny", and a zippity cover of "Skoodle Um Skoo." All three tracks just sound good. The band may have swelled to indie-pop size, but they're still making a great Americana roots and folk sound. (Hat tip to Gwyneth for the heads up.)
Austin's Biscuit Brothers are best seen on TV or live. There's a definite theatrical sensibility in the episodes you can watch on selected PBS stations or on DVD, and they've been performing live even longer. (The live shows were the inspiration for the TV show, in fact.) As good as those shows are, though, trying to capture the essential Biscuit nature on CD is a little tougher. Their previous disk, Old MacDonald's EIEI Radio, sounded a little bit like a (long) TV episode, with a little emphasis on the educational component of the TV show. It usually worked OK, but there were points where it seemed like there were some visuals missing and it wasn't as entertaining as watching the show. Now, with their just-released Family Favorites, they're taking a slightly different approach, essentially forgoing attempts at direct education and an episodic structure, and putting together an album of fun songs, some of which were originally recorded for the TV show, some of which are new for this album. While the result is definitely not like the show in its overall structure, the album does a fine job of capturing the Biscuit Brothers spirit, energy, and humor. The album starts off with a great version of the "Wabash Cannonball" -- its soaring chorus is a high point of the album -- and proceeds to wander through some time-tested tunes. Irving Berlin ("Alexander's Ragtime Band) and George M. Cohan ("Grand Old Flag" and "Yankee Doodle Scarecrow" -- OK, that last one has been modified a bit from the original) help the 20th century make an appearance, while "Old Dan Tucker" gets a smooth, polished performance from the band. Indeed, one of the pleasures of the CD is listening to the Brothers' fine voices and Allen Robertson's musical arrangements in song after song. And while the Biscuit Brothers' primary musical approach is renditions of folk songs, they're talented enough to make the alphabet song sound a bit like the Fifth Dimension on "Alphabet!" And, yeah, Tiny Scarecrow, one of my favorite kids' show characters of all time (and one who gets high marks from my kids, too), gets his share of air time -- he's appropriately goofy on the "World's Shortest Dance Break," he negotiates the rapid-fire lyrics on "Tiger Rag" -- so that pleased me. In the let's-make-a-silly-rhyme "Schnitzelbank," he makes a Rene Magritte reference about floating apples -- high and low in the same song. These songs are really an all-ages setlist, but given a couple of the titles, let's put the target range at kids ages 2 through 9. You can hear clips from the 34-minute album at its CDBaby page. If you're already a Biscuit Brothers fan, you've probably picked up Family Favorites by now -- and if you haven't, you should. For those of you who aren't sure about the Brothers, I think this is a fun album you can enjoy even if you've never seen the show -- it's the best audio introduction to the Biscuit Brothers. Recommended.
I hear about a bunch of benefit albums. And a benefit album with tracks from Elizabeth Mitchell, Dog on Fleas, and Medeski Martin & Wood definitely piques my interest. But any benefit album which includes songs like "True True Friend" from Dog on Fleas collaborator Debbie Lan with this description -- "This song was written for our musical last year (a collaborative piece, interpreted and adapted by Allison Uzzle and the 7th/ 8th graders – the challenge was to take the epic poem ‘Beouwolf’ and make it into a musical comedy!) and we needed a sweet song for four of our sweet girls, and so I wrote this for them. They did a sterling job. Thanks girls!! (Isabelle Lacedonia, Rebekah Underhill-Hval, Corin Mosack and Zoe Saridakis.)" -- well, I'm well beyond piqued. Proceeds from High Meadow Songs benefits High Meadow Arts, Inc. a Hudson Valley non-profit organization "dedicated to providing excellent arts education to local children and families." Listen to 3 tracks -- Debbie Lan's soulful "I'm On Your Side," Dog on Fleas' typically Fleasian (that is, eclectic and fun) "Buffalo Gals," and the nifty "Hudson River Girl" from Abby Hollander, Lilly Morganstern & the Hudson River Girls -- here. The record release party is Sunday, Dec. 2 at 6 PM.
If you've read this website over the past five or six months, you know how big a fan I (and the rest of my family) have become of Austin's Biscuit Brothers. They've recorded four CDs and make the not-infrequent concert appearance in the Austin area with their top-notch, often rootsy versions of American classics and originals, packed with not a small amount of wit for both kids and parents. But it's their PBS TV show in which they really shine. Each episode of the show typically tackles a different musical concept -- tempo, harmony, folk songs, emotion in music -- and illustrates that concept through a variety of ways. The two brothers Dusty (Jerome Schoolar, the executive producer) and Buford (Allen Robertson, the musical director) are the genial guides; sister Buttermilk (Jill Leberknight, jack-of-all-trades) reads from "The Big Book of Music" (it's a really big book); and Tiny Scarecrow (a puppet voiced by Damon Brown, the director) often plays the fool, demonstrating a concept via exaggeration or general silliness. It sounds dry on paper (or, er, the screen), but it's anything but. Just watch Go Make Music! Volume 2, a collection of 4 episodes from the show's second season (2006-2007) released this summer, and tell me you and your family members a) don't learn something, and b) don't enjoy it. It's explicitly educational, to be sure, but there's such joy and fun on the screen that you don't mind learning (or re-learning) even the most basic of concepts. In the episode titled "Dynamics," all about how loud and soft music is, Tiny Scarecrow and Buttermilk share a duet where Tiny doesn't quite get the concept of loud and soft at first. It's funny to hear Tiny singing "I am singing softly, softly, softly" at the top of his nasally voice, but it gets the point across to the young'uns quite clearly. Or in "Conduct Yourself," the Brothers go on a "Conducting Adventure" illustrating exactly how important conductors are to drawing good or bad musical performances out of people (or how confusing it can be to having two conductors). If there's a base musical style used for illustrating concepts, it might classical music, but the show employs a whole host of styles, particularly folk and roots music when just playing music. By this, the second season, the show has certainly settled into its routines for each episode, and so the favorite segments -- "Instrument of the Day," Crazy Classics," the end-of-show song in Symphony Barn -- all make their appearances here. The production is, once again, first-class. To artists who think they can just put together a DVD without much effort, I encourage you to watch these shows and look at how many people it takes (or how much effort it takes) to put one of these disks together. A few technical notes -- the disk contains four 27-minute episodes from the season's second (13-episode) season. It also includes all 12 "Instrument of the Day" segments from Season 2. Strung together, I found listening to the segment theme a dozen times in about 24 minutes a little tiring, but individually (either option is available), I think they're great little 2-minute lessons about, say, the clarinet. There's also a brief DVD "Easter egg" that's worth finding. The shows are going to be of most interest to kids 3 through 8. Unfortunately, there's nothing showing the Biscuit Brothers in action on Youtube or anywhere else on the web (a segment or three from "The Best of Symphony Barn" episode would be perfect uploaded there, hint hint, guys). But trust me. You can buy all sorts of Biscuit Brothers stuff here. We watch the two DVDs from the show quite a bit. I watch Go Make Music! Volume 2 and can't help but think that this show a) could be huge, and b) should be huge. They have just the right mix of educational goodness, entertaining productions, and musical talent that make the show a real treasure. Definitely recommended.
OK, perhaps mentions on an Esquire blog and a local television aren't quite the equivalent of, say, American Idol, but baby steps, man, baby steps. Brooklyn's rockin' Deedle Deedle Dees have pulled off the unusual double-header. First off, Esquire's Matt Marinovich's writes of his day as a children's band roadie. It's from a show the Dees did a couple weeks ago. It's an amusing read (plus a good description of a Dees show). My favorite part (and not just because there's a hint of my own life in there)?
A woman puts her hand on my shoulder. I turn around, expecting that I’m about to be offered my first sexual favor. Instead, it’s Beth, a friend of my wife’s. She’s there with her two kids. “What are you doing here?” she says. “I’m the band’s “roadie,” I says, putting quotes around “roadie” with my fingers to indicate mature, cynical detachment. This doesn’t seem to help matters. I turn around and hear her whispering something to the mom next to her. Feeling an urge to clarify things, I turn around and smile at her. “I should have called my wife,” I say, as if the thought had just occurred to me. “Had her bring down the kids.” “That would have been a good idea,” Beth says, looking at me warily. “It’s a kids’ concert, right?”Or, if you don't like the dry wit of an Esquire blogger, how about the earnestness of a local TV news broadcast? Like this one, which inexplicably is on a Charleston, SC NBC affiliate's webpage. The video talks about chief Dee songwriter Lloyd Miller's Nature Babies program in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. The text on the page is essentially a transcript of the video, but if you watch the video, you can hear snippets of "I'm A Duck." I'm totally expecting that on the next Dees album.