Review: Blue Clouds - Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower

How to sum up the latest album from Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower, the dream-soaked Blue Clouds?

I suppose one could start with that adjective, "dream-soaked."  From the song lyrics (the frog and mouse courtship and wedding of "Froggie Went A-Courtin'" or the dogs running around in "Yuki (Snow)") to the album art from renowned author and artist Remy Charlip to the arrangements featuring Mitchell's direct and gentle voice and strings and flute, among others, the entire album seems suffused with sleepy imagery and feelings.

Or perhaps it's with a bullet-point recounting of the high points on the album:

  • The total feeling of empathy generated by her cover of Bill Withers' "I Wish You Well."
  • The title track (a lullaby written by Mitchell's husband Daniel Littleton), which wraps up the album and is an instant modern classic
  • Her version of "Everyone," which recasts Van Morrison's joy-filled song into something akin to a blessing.

I could always compare and contrast with Mitchell's previous work.  It's definitely more varied in scope than Little Seed, her fine Woody Guthrie tribute album from this summer.  For the listeners to Sunny Day who wished that Mitchell front-and-center more often in that album, instead of ceding lead vocals to daughter Storey on some tracks (I was perfectly fine with the shift as I saw what Mitchell was aiming at in being part of the Folkways tradition), they will find the mix more like You Are My Little Bird -- the kids are integrated nicely on the tracks, but it's Mitchell show.

Or I could be very technical about the whole thing: 38 minutes in length, best for ages 3 through 9, more album details here or stream some songs here.  Don't forget the physical packaging, typically Smithsonian-awesome, featuring Charlip's artwork, an introductory essay from author and artist Brian Selznick, and nice liner notes from Mitchell herself.

But instead the word I keep drifting back to is that of family.  Mitchell's immediate family -- her, husband Daniel, daughter Storey -- who have always been at the heart of this whole enterprise and her approach to making a living as a musician in this field.  Her extended family -- Brian Selznick not only writes a generous introduction, but it's dedicated to his friend Remy Charlip and the mother of his goddaughter Storey; her sister-in-law Anna Padgett writes a couple songs on the album.  Her super-extended Folkways family -- Smithsonian heroes Ruth Crawford Seeger and Ella Jenkins inspire tunes.  And my own family, who have been listening to Mitchell's music for more than a decade and have spent many (hundreds of) hours with her music.  Mitchell pulls us all in and, for a moment, makes us feel connected before sending us back into the world to be as generous with others as she has been with us.  Highly recommended.

Review: Binary - The Board of Education

Geek.

Nerd.

Dork.

Words that once carried a stigma are now bandied about with pride by many.  What are the increasingly subdivided niches of fans and supporters of pop culture but collections of nerds celebrating their own weirdnesses? (Note: not a slam.  After all, I am a kids music aficianado.  I know from celebrating tastes not fully embraced by the mainstream.)

Enter Seattle's The Board of Education.  If Recess Monkey and Caspar Babypants are the hardest-working artists in kindie music, cranking out albums in about the length of time it takes me to write this review, then their Kindiependent compatriots The Board of Education in are there to even out the average.  Their just-released album, Binary, follows their debut album by 4.5 years.

Perhaps it takes the band so long because chief songwriter Kevin Emerson and his bandmates are each getting advanced degrees on the topics covered in their songs -- the breakup of the Soviet Union ("Welcome Back!/Geography Quiz!"), Kevlar inventor Stephanie Kwolek ("Know Your Inventors, Part II"), or variable specific impulse magneto-pulsar rockets ("VASIMR (To Mars!)," natch). (No advanced degree is needed to enjoy the Star Wars-themed rant/plea "Why Is Dad So Mad?".)  All of which would be deadly dull except you can tell that the Board of Education really likes the topics at hand, and they know their way around a pop hook.

Hidden behind that brainy veneer, however, is also an appreciation for how humans make their way through the world.  Sometimes it's the chief topic of a song, such as on the delicate "Three," about a young elementary schooler navigating changes in friendship.  Elsewhere, such as on "Binary" or the totally and utterly awesome "I'm Not Here Right Now," the band merges those human understandings with geekier topics.  For an album filled with a bunch of space-related themes, it's remarkably down-to-earth.

The album will be most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 11.  You can hear a number of tracks from the album at the band's Bandcamp page.

So let's celebrate the obsessives, the adults (and kids) burning with curiosity about the world around them, be it light-years away, or at the school cafeteria -- The Board of Education gets you.  And you, obsessive (or parent of an obsessive), should you choose to discover the band, you might just find another obsession.  Highly recommended.

Video: "Froggy Went a Courtin'" - Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower

I've never been a huge fan of the song "Froggy Went a Courtin'," if only because it just seems so linear -- this happens, then this happens, then this happens -- in nature.  But Elizabeth Mitchell is a cover artist par extraordinaire, and on her latest album Blue Clouds she and You Are My Flower turn the centuries-old song into lovely song you could envision hearing at a wedding -- amphibian or otherwise.

So it's probably appropriate that the video is set at a (non-amphibian) wedding, with a few simple animations mixed in.  Who wouldn't want Elizabeth Mitchell playing at their wedding?  Lovely all around.(Source: Goodyblog)

Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower - "Froggy Went a Courtin'" [YouTube]

Review: Lullaby - Justin Roberts

It's been awhile since I've written a review here.  There are a number of reasons for that, most of them entirely unrelated to kids music.

A small reason for my recent lack of reviews, however, is trying to figure out how to write to music without resorting to the same phrases and frames of reference I've been using for so long.  It's hard to do the same thing year-in, year-out without feeling a little drained.  It takes effort to mix it up, to stretch oneself in a new direction.

Which brings us ("Finally!," you say) to Justin Roberts' new album Lullaby.  For the follow-up to his masterful album Jungle Gym, Roberts didn't choose to write another album of perfect pop and power-pop songs (for that, we'll have to wait until 2013).  Instead, kindie's finest songwriter stretched in a slightly different direction, writing an entire album of, well, if not exactly lullabies, then at least songs for downtime.

Roberts isn't a stranger to slow songs, of course -- songs like "Dad Caught Stars" and "Song for You" are among his best work -- but they typically serve as the dessert, not the main course as they are here.  So instead of songs about bullies or baseball, Roberts has crafted a late-night album of love songs.

Of course, that's what a lot of lullabies are, an attempt to soothe the troubled child (or adult) with a pleasant melody and words that offer comfort and the reassurance of a watching and loving eye.  And some of the best lullaby albums are those that repurpose "adult" song and reframe them as songs of love from parent to child.

Most songs here, stripped of their origin in a "kids music" album, would sound just as appropriate in a mellow, "adult music" album.  Only "A Wild One," which sounds like a lost Van Morrison track, might draw a few odd looks from listeners were it mixed in with other non-kids-music tracks.  The track itself is dedicated "for Maurice," who, based on the lyrics regarding a boy reading books before bedtime, is clearly Maurice Sendak.  It's as close to an anti-lullaby this lullaby album gets.

Key to the feelings of warmth engendered by the album are the musical styles and arrangements.  The Latin samba of "What the Stork Sent," the '70s singer-songwriter folk of "Nothing on You," the string quartet on "Heart of Gold" -- Roberts is using a more muted palette, but appropriately so.  Roberts wrote the arrangements for the album with help from producer Liam Davis, who again creates an overall soundscape that serves Roberts' songs well.

Because this is a lullaby album, I am obligated by the terms and conditions of being a kids music reviewer to state that the 38-minute album is targeted at kids ages 0 through 5, but like many of the best "non-traditional" lullaby albums, its practical age range is much broader.  The album packaging, featuring paintings by Alison Jay, is, like the album itself, elegantly (but not fussily) understated, but I don't think you're missing out if you choose to get the album on mp3.

When I was in college, I would joke that they handed out copies of James Taylor's Greatest Hits album and Van Morrison's Moondance at freshman orientation, so prevalent were they in dorm rooms and apartments.  I still get some warm, fuzzy feelings when I occasionally pull them out.  Lullaby gives me those same sort of feelings, and I can see it unironically being part of parents' non-kids-time listening rotation.  I expect the album to be part of many families' relaxed afternoons, evenings, and late-night feedings.  Different tempo, same great songs.  Highly recommended.

My Favorite (Best?) Kids Music of 2012

While the posting date on this says 2012, I have to tell you the truth.  I am totally  back-dating this thing.  I am writing this at the end of October 2013 in preparation of writing my Top 10 lists for 2013. 

You see, my secret shame is that I never published my list(s) of my favorite kids music of 2012.

Oh, the shame, it burns... 

Now, it's not like I didn't seriously think about this subject last year.  Besides co-coordinating the 2012 Fids and Kamily Awards, I also voted in them, and the top 10 albums below reflect my vote in the awards.  But I do receive far more great kids music than I can fit into my ten-slot F&K ballot, so this is my opportunity to give some shout-outs to some artists.  Looking at this list, there are easily 6 or 7 of those albums on the list from #s 11 through 25 that could easily be swapped into the Top 10 list.

So in order not to make this already more embarrassing or major-movie-romantic-comedy-like, without further ado (or, frankly, comment), here are my lists of the best (or at least favorite) in kids music, circa 2012.  (If you define, as I do, 2012 as being Nov. 1, 2011 through Oct. 31, 2012.)

Top Kids Music Albums

1.  The Okee Dokee Brothers - Can You Canoe?

2.  Elizabeth Mitchell - Blue Clouds

3.  The Board of Education - Binary

4.  Dog on Fleas - Invisible Friends

5.  Johnny Bregar - My Neighborhood

6.  Lunch Money - Spicy Kid

7.  Recess Monkey - In Tents

8.  Various Artists - Science Fair

9.  Secret Agent 23 Skidoo - Make Believers

10.  Various Artists (Matt Wilson) - WeBop: A Family Jazz Party

Albums 11-25 (unranked, shown in alphabetical order) 

Caspar Babypants - Hot Dog!

Coal Train Railroad - Swings! 

Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band - A Potluck

Duke Otherwise - Creepy Crawly Love 

Elska - Middle of Nowhere 

Jennifer Gasoi - Throw a Penny in the Wishing Well

Jumping Through Hoops - Rockin' to the Fiddle

Randy Kaplan - Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie 

Kori Pop - Songs for Little Bean 

Elizabeth Mitchell - Little Seed 

Elena Moon Park - Rabbit Days & Dumplings 

The Pop Ups - Radio Jungle

Renee & Jeremy - A Little Love 

They Might Be Giants - No! (Deluxe Reissue) 

Laura Veirs - Tumble Bee

 

A special shout-out here to Adventures of Chicken Weebus , which isn't really kids music so I didn't really consider it for this list, but based on pure entertainment value definitely ranks in our Top 25.

 

Top Kids Music Debut Albums (listed alphabetically)

Duke Otherwise - Creepy Crawly Love 

Elska - Middle of Nowhere

Kepi Ghoulie - Kepi for Kids 

Jumping Through Hoops - Rockin' to the Fiddle 

Kori Pop - Songs for Little Bean

Alison Faith Levy - World of Wonder (I know, not quite fair given her history with the Sippy Cups, but still...)

Elena Moon Park - Rabbit Days & Dumplings

Play Date - Imagination 

Laura Veirs - Tumble Bee

Various Artists (Matt Wilson) - WeBop: A Family Jazz Party 

Video: "40 Things To Do in a Blackout" - The Pop Ups

I don't think write, record, and film a video for a benefit song was one of the 40 things the Pop Ups mention in their new song, "40 Things To Do in a Blackout," but singing along definitely was.  The new track was inspired by (if that's an appropriate phrase) Hurricane Sandy, and all proceeds benefit Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.  (Purchase the track via Bandcamp, Amazon, and -- soon -- iTunes.)  The song takes a while to get a head of steam, but once it does, it's a ton of fun and worth a buck.  The video is just that much more fun.  After all, everything's better with puppets (another suggestion from the band, of course).

The Pop Ups - "40 Things To Do in a Blackout" [YouTube]