"Well, then, pick up your CDs, dear." On the eve of Gustafer Yellowgold's and Robbert Bobbert's CMJ-related appearance at Joe's Pub on Saturday, I thought I'd note that their new label, Little Monster Records, has put together quite the diverse lineup of kids' releases. A Beatles tribute album, All Together Now, featuring members of the Bangles, Grandaddy, among others, will be released next week. A Medeski, Martin & Wood kids' album will be released next year along with Soulville, a collection of R&B and soul tunes that includes a kids chorus. (And then there are releases from Gustafer and Robbert Bobbert.) I can't imagine many families buying all 5 releases, but unless they're all awful, I can't imagine many families not finding something appealing in at least one of them. I've often thought that there was room for kids-focused boutique labels. Frankly, even with Little Monster's creation (along with a re-energized Kid Rhino and ever-expanding Rounder Records), I think there's room for even more. Maybe not labels in the traditional sense (in which the labels often own the recordings), but labels as management companies, serving as filters and helping with distribution, production, and promotion.
Halloween does not rank high on my list of holidays I enjoy, which probably goes a long way toward explain why I'm half-heartedly putting this list together the night before Halloween. Perhaps next year I'll get an earlier start. (Devon has a lot more suggestions, including this list of songs.) First, 3 CDs that might be appropriate (if a little late to order) for the season: -- Sue Schnitzer's Boo, Cackle, Trick or Treat is a fairly tame (read: appropriate for preschoolers) celebration of the holiday that matches Schnitzer's folk-pop songs (and some traditional songs) with Halloween themes. If Halloween is more about the candy in your household than the scary, this is for you. (The album is also available on iTunes.) -- Katherine Dines' Hunk-Ta-Bunk-Ta Spooky! is for older kids (ages 6 and up). It's a little scarier, though many of the songs and stories (they're about evenly split) have a purpose -- overcoming fears. The song arrangements are a little more electronic, but it's still most folk/pop. (This album is available on iTunes as well, though it'll come without the excellent liner notes, which include all the lyrics and stories, plus other stuff.) -- Magic Maestro Music's The Sorcerer's Apprentice is for kids of all ages. It plays Paul Dukas' famous "Sorcerer's Apprentice" (you know, Mickey and the nightmare of the ever-multiplying broomsticks in Fantasia) both with and without narration. There are plenty of versions available, of course, but this one does provide some context for kids to help them enjoy the piece. Next, a couple podcasts: -- Mr. David recorded a new Halloween podcast recently, including a new song, "The Winchester Festival," which continues the story-paintings of his Great Adventures of Mr. David CD. You can hear (and see) the podcast here. -- Monty Harper also put out a Halloween podcast recently; check it out here. Finally, a list of other songs: -- "Skin and Bones" -- countless recordings (Raffi, Sam Hinton, the Hunk-Ta-Bunk-Ta Spooky disk above) -- "Dia de los Muertos," Uncle Rock -- off his Plays Well With Others disk -- "A Skeleton Bang," Rasputina -- off the Colours Are Brighter I'm sure I'm missing some songs... care to help add to the list?
I can't say that my initial expectations for Colours Are Brighter, the kids' music compilation put together by Belle & Sebastian trumpeter/bassist Mick Cooke, were very high. Franz Ferdinand doing kids' music, along with a whole bunch of other bands, only a few of which were familiar to these American ears? The whole thing sounded nothing more than a quickie album thrown together to cash in on the sudden popularity of music for kids. (OK, a quickie album designed to raise money for Save The Children's "Rewrite the Future" campaign, but still.) Fear and misinformation are poor bases for making decisions on many things, and kids and family music albums are no different, my friends. To begin with, Cooke has been putting together the compilation for a couple years, so it's not like Cooke read the Billboard charts in March and thought, hey, I can do that. More importantly, the music's pretty good. Franz Ferdinand might just do the best job on the entire disk of putting together a kids' song that's in the spirit of the adult band. With its tinkling piano and scuffling drums, "Jackie Jackson" has enough of the more muscular sound of their music for adults, but the song's chief attribute is singer Alex Kapranos' spirited vocal turn on the story of greedy boy who likes to eat too many cakes. (The boy meets an unsavory, Roald Dahl-like ending.) Another band familiar to some are Snow Patrol, who resurrect an old song, "I Am An Astronaut," which seems like a picture book come to life (or sound), using swirly Snow Patrol sounds. (And, yes, "The Monkeys Are Breaking Out the Zoo" returns Belle and Sebastian to their more twee-pop sounds.) The less-familiar artists sound good here, too -- Rasputina sounds a bit like Bjork on the funky, angular "A Skeleton Bang" while The Barcelona Pavilion (who hail from Canada, I believe) turn in a post-punk "Tidy Up Tidy Up" that sounds They Might Be Giants-ian echoes. My favorite tracks? Four Tet (featuring Princess Watermelon) doing the dance-track "Go Go Ninja Dinosaur" and the Ivor Cutler Trio singing "Mud," a track that sounds like it was recorded 80 years ago, but was in fact recorded only 40 years ago. Not everything works great -- The Kooks' "The King and I" would sound good on their recent debut album, but if there was something that distinguished the song here from the rest of their work, I couldn't hear it. And the Flaming Lips' track, "The Big Ol' Bug Is The New Baby Now" is a half-sung, half-spoken word track on which, unfortunately the spoken words are too difficult to understand. There's nothing age-inappropriate here, but I'm guessing kids ages 3 through 9 are more likely to appreciate the music. If you want to hear the tracks, visit either the album's website or its Myspace page. The album is available as an import here Stateside, or you may want to go directly to Amazon.co.uk or CD-Wow. Colours Are Brighter is subtitled "Songs for children and grown ups too," which isn't a bad description. The songs stretch across the spectrum from being targeted right at the younguns to being pretty much "starter songs" for the bands' adult work. It's not a perfect compilation and there's not much of a unifying theme, but there are enough decent songs that it's worth exploring, particularly if you're interested in hearing a cross-section of mostly British, mostly current, pop-rockers. Recommended.
I begin here by noting my tremendous affinity for Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, or at the very least, for the Wiggleworms CDs they've released -- longtime readers will know I'm a big fan. That doesn't even get to the School itself, which for fifty years has provided countless hours of musical instruction and performance for Chicago-area residents, old and young alike. Jealous? Me? Living hundreds of miles away? Just a little. (OK, a lot.) So with great enthusiasm that I gave their Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Volume One, released by Bloodshot Records (another Chicago institution, though not quite as old), a spin and held my breath -- could it somehow meet my expectations? And the answer is, well, yes. Over the course of 23 songs in 77 minutes, the album puts together songs well-known and not, from artists well-known and not. There's so much here to listen to that singling out a few songs seems unfair to the album, but life's not fair, which is itself a lesson that's heard on a few songs here. So then, three songs: "Take This Hammer" -- Jon Langford gives an exuberant reading of this folksong, first collected in 1915, his raspy voice accompanied by his guitar and Rick Sherry's jug and percussion. It's an old song, but it sounds tailor-made for the 21st century. "Drunken Sailor" -- Dan Zanes shows up with his band in full "Sea Music" mode, giving a idiosyncratic mid-tempo version of the song. It's not the full-tempo, punk-pirate version one commonly hears, but the band's musicianship and their voices -- I love that band's set of pipes -- actually help you hear the lyrics and appreciate them. "Salty Dog Blues" -- If "Drunken Sailor" is the song you're not sure you should be playing for your 5-year-old but you do anyway, Rick Sherry's rendition of "Salty Dog Blues" is not safe for the younguns, lest you be asked to explain what it means to be someone's "salty dog." (I, on the other hand, as a fully-capable adult, think the cut is great.) There are some songs that seemed too reverent for my tastes, but that's a personal thing, and all the tracks are well-done. People more familiar with the folk canon may have different views, but I also think the album really begins to pick up speed in the second half where the songs are more familiar -- "St. James Infirmary," "Down in the Valley," an excellent "Wayfaring Stranger" from John Stirratt. Even setting aside "Salty Dog Blues," there's little here lyrically that would engage younger kids, so I think it's probably most appropriate for kids ages 8 and up. (Not saying that there aren't tracks appropriate for younger kids, such as Erin Flynn's reading of "Amazing Grace," just that this probably isn't your first choice.) You can download a couple tracks from the CD at Bloodshot's page for the album. (And here's my own suggestion, free of charge, for the School -- a bound, printed version of the Songbook, with chords and lyrics, would rock.) Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Volume 1 is a solid collection of folksong recordings that reflect not only the strength of America's musical heritage but also of the School itself. Families with older kids should definitely check it out. The name "Volume 1" implies that more are on the way, and for that, I can't wait. Recommended.
The first thing you need to know about Elizabeth Street is that it's a band, not a person, consisting of two people: Connecticut-based singer-songwriter Susan Kolbenheyer and guitarist Gregory Pearce. The next thing you need to know is that their debut album Different (2006) is pretty good. In kids' and family music, there are many albums with decent music but with lyrics that are just too... obvious. It is possible, however, to write lyrics that are direct enough for kids that aren't so obvious as to make the parental eyes roll, and it's that fine line that Kolbenheyer walks on the album. Take, for example, the power-poppy "Fair," with a chorus of "Life isn't always fair / Sometimes things don't work out like you plan / But we make the best with what we can / and hey it may be grand." If the whole song was as obvious as the chorus, it would get tiring very quickly. Luckily, the stories in the verses (for example, how the narrator's dad ate the "Chubby Hubby" ice cream she thought she'd hidden in the back of the freezer) are laced with humor and the song ends with a bunch of nonsensical wordplay. Kolbenheyer says she's trying to open up an avenue of dialogue between parents and kids with the songs, and even includes the gentle and bluesy "You Can Tell Me" to expressly encourage dialogue, though even here the verses aren't always direct ("Did you disagree with your imaginary friend? / You can tell me, you can tell me / Did he hurt your feelings even though he is pretend? / You can tell me anything") If there's a dominant musical approach, it's gentle folk-guitar-pop, but there's definitely enough variety musically to keep things interesting. "Really Gross" is the best song about nose-picking that Jack Johnson never wrote, while "Dragon For Dinner" and "The Eyeball People" are punk tunes. "We're All Friends Here" is a catchy power-pop tune. Kolbenheyer has an appealing voice and Pearce's instrumental work is strong, though sometimes the productions seems to leave the vocals less clear than I'd like on kids' CDs. (Besides the music itself, I'd also commend the lovely album art of Pamela Zagarenski.) Given the topics of the songs, the album would be most appropriate for kids 5 through 9. You can hear long-ish samples of several tracks at the album's CDBaby page. Elizabeth Street sounds a bit to me like a more-amplified Frances England, or maybe a less-lyrically-direct Milkshake. But like most good albums, Different stands on its own terms, in this case melding a skewed-enough approach to kids-related topics with parent-accessible music. Recommended.