Are You Listening? - The Not-Its

Are You Listening? cover

Are You Listening? cover

Artist: The Not-Its!

Album: Are You LIstening?

Age Range: 5-9

Review: The Seattle quintet has proven to be a consistently entertaining band over their past five albums.  Their sixth album is another solid effort, a half-hour's worth of pop-rock Pop Rocks, fizzy and playful.  The band is still willing to take a silly, cartoonish route on songs like "Granddad Is a Spy" and "Done With the Science Fair," and parents are more likely than the kids to appreciate the metal thrash of "Don't Fear the Dentist."  But they know their way around (slightly) more mature subject matters -- "Washington, DC" deftly slides from travelogue to encouragement of political engagement, "Bird on a Wire" features an ode to a bird and some killer harmonies, and leadoff track "Dance With Me" includes the best guitar solo you'll ever hear on a basic movement song.  (Stream the album here to listen to these and more.)

With Sarah Shannon's voice as powerful and the band as tight as ever, the band's kinetic energy and occasionally-acerbic-but-never-cynical lyrics continue to keep them in the forefront of modern kindie pop.  It's ear candy for your favorite first-grader.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I was provided a copy of this album for possible review.

Just For Fun - Beleza

Just For Fun cover

Just For Fun cover

Artist: Beleza

Album: Just For Fun

Age Range:

Review: The colorful cover of Beleza's first album for families, Just for Fun, doesn't particularly stand out among kids music releases -- kindie covers are rarely monochromatic.  But the music inside is far more distinctive, a mix of Brazilian music and jazz with a light touch and playful core.  Without diminishing Humberto Oliveira Sales' guitar work and playing on other instruments, it's Madeleine Holly-Sales' vocals that most give this album a festive but sophisticated air.  With a nifty blend of English-language covers (a swingin' "I Wanna Be Like You" from The Jungle Book, "Little Liza Jane" with nifty guitar work, and a bilingual "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad") and songs in Portuguese (including "O Pato," about a duck and made famous Stateside by João Gilberto, Stan Getz, and Astrud Gilberto), the 33-minute album is like a jet down to Rio for a kid-friendly Carnaval weekend.  (Should one of those things exist.)  Definitely recommended.

Note: I was provided a copy of this album for possible review.

Toddlerbilly Riot! - Matt Heaton

Toddlerbilly Riot cover

Toddlerbilly Riot cover

Artist: Matt Heaton

Album: Toddlerbilly Riot

Age Range: 3-7

Review: There are lots of pop-rock albums in the kids music world, but the rockabilly sound on prominent display on Massachusetts-based Matt Heaton's new album is rarer, and perhaps the chief reason to recommend it.  Heaton does draw on other sounds -- "Down By the Bay" gets a Drifters-like "Down By the Boardwalk" update, and Heaton's Americana/folk music instrumental chops are put to good use elsewhere -- but the surf rock sounds on "Go Stop Go" and (most memorably, at least lyrically) "Don't Drink the Water (Your Butt's Been In)" are its most distinctive.  You can stream the 34-minute album here.  The songs don't attempt to change the course of kids music, but there's just enough of a different sonic approach to make it worth exploring.  Recommended.

Note: I was provided a copy of this album for possible review.

Andy's Wild Amphibian Show! - Andy Offutt Irwin

Andy Offutt Irwin - Andy's Wild Amphibian Show album cover

Andy Offutt Irwin - Andy's Wild Amphibian Show album cover

Artist: Andy Offutt Irwin

AlbumAndy's Wild Amphibian Show!

Age Range: 5 through 10

Review: With a blurb from king of the kindie storytellers Bill Harley (and a figurative push from longtime occasional touring partner Cathy Fink), this was a pretty safe bet when I put the CD in  and hit "play."  Sure enough, the first kids CD from the Georgia-based storyteller hits the same pleasant storyteller notes as Harley -- the feeling that childhood is every bit as adventurous as adulthood, empowerment in small bites, and, of course, the occasional silly voice.  Most of the album is taken up by two stories told in front of a live audience, "I Have a Loose Tooth" and the title track.  It also features a live recording of the sweet sing-along lullaby (not an oxymoron) "The Light Went Away" and a studio rendition of "I Love To Whistle," which features Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer.  (Did I mention that Irwin's a whistler?  He's a really good whistler.)

Unlike Bill Harley's tales, in which many of them I've often felt a bit of wistfulness, these stories stick to a more triumphant tone.  Which is also fine.  Just a bit different.  Irwin is just as engaging with the kids, regardless of whether it's through the occasional encouragement to repeat a loooong vocabulary word or just through his silly voices or compelling narrative.  Worth a spin if you're looking to expand your family's storytelling collection.  Recommended.

Note: I was provided a copy of this album for possible review.

Yay! - Seanster and the Monsters

Seanster and the Monsters - Yay! album cover

Seanster and the Monsters - Yay! album cover

Artist: Seanster and the Monsters

Album: Yay!

Age Range: 4 through 8

Description: I'm a little late to this 2014 release from the Winnipeg-area band, but it's a nifty little collection of songs that run the gamut from amusing to absurd.  I realize that gamuts are usually a little wider than that, but Sean Hogan and his band know his strengths and play to them.

Musically, the band covers more ground, from the silly march of the leadoff track "Yay Dolphins!" (which eventually sings about kittens in the cockpit) to '60s-era spy music ("Double-O Wombat") to the polka of album closer "More Monkeys."  (Genial guitar-based folk-rock with a hint of banjo is generally their home base.)  I thought the movement-based songs "Pat Your Head" and especially "They Can't" ("Snap / Like the turtles can't snap")were more clever and engaging than most movement-based songs I've heard, approaching They Might Be Giants' "Clap Your Hands" in terms of that cleverness.  While there's definitely a TMBG/Barenaked Ladies vibe to their songs, some of their more narrative songs will remind listeners of the odd narratives of Duke Otherwise, Zak Morgan, and Steve Weeks (whom Hogan bears more than passing resemblance to, vocally).

Technically speaking, the 37-minute album is a debut album, but Hogan has been performing kids music for more than a decade.  Now that they've got this first album as a band under their belt, I'm eager to see them stretch their wings, somewhat musically, definitely lyrically.  But this is solid stuff for the joking kid in your life.  Recommended.

Note: I was provided a copy of the album for possible review.

BVGB - Brian Vogan and his Good Buddies

Brian Vogan and his Good Buddies BVGB cover

Brian Vogan and his Good Buddies BVGB cover

Artist: Brian Vogan and his Good Buddies

Album: BVGB

Age Range: 2 through 6

Description: With relatively little fanfare nationally, Seattle-based Vogan has released six albums (including this latest one) targeted at the older preschool/kindergarten set over the past seven years.  All of them have had some good songs to recommend them, and BVGB is no exception.  "Big Bad Dump Truck" is a shuffling rocker with, appropriately enough, a hint of dirt to it.  "Dinosaur in My Drawer" features some nifty guitar work and some "la la las."  "Marla Has Two Moms" will help fill out your family diversity playlist, while "Presidents' Day" celebrates even the least celebrated chief executives.  Even the songs I didn't hear saying much new say them with obvious thought as to how to convey the lyrics (like the rough sound of "I'm a Nasty Cavity").

At barely 25 minutes in length, the album almost feels like an extended EP than a full album.  But for those families looking for an artist that might complement artists like Laurie Berkner to serve their favorite four-year-old, this is a good introduction to an artist who might fit that bill.  Recommended.

Note: I was provided a copy of the album for possible review.

Classic Songs & Traditional Tunes - Andy Z

Classic Songs and Traditional Tunes album cover

Classic Songs and Traditional Tunes album cover

Artist: Andy Z

Album: Classic Songs & Traditional Tunes

Age Range: 3 through 7

Description: If you review music long enough, you run the risk of being overly enamored of the new and of novelty because you've "heard it all before."  So this album of 15 songs from the Bay Area-artist Andy Z runs the risk of being overlooked simply because it's a set of classic songs performed with few twists.  But that's also the very reason why it might appeal to someone -- it's the sort of album that isn't made much anymore.  I mean, I like a unique take as much as the next person, but trying to find an album of standard interpretations that has a modicum of production quality is harder than you might think.

Andy Z takes a country-folk approach to the songs, and the songs that have a Western/cowboy hook to them -- "I've Been Workin' On the Railroad," "Don't Fence Me In," "Ghost Riders in the Sky" -- fare best of all.  The album also benefits from songs like "Ghost Riders" and "Shake a Friend's Hand" (along with unfamiliar-to-me lyrics for "Take Me Out to the Ballgame") that aren't as overplayed as the other traditional tunes.  It's a bit languid for my tastes in spots -- there are definitely songs where I would have appreciated a Dan Zanes-style kick in the electronic guitar rear -- but the band and its guests, all of whom play a host of stringed instruments, make it sound appealing.

The 38-minute album won't be to the tastes of families needing a more modern take on traditional songs (or a traditional take on modern songs and subjects), but I'd recommend it for families whose music collection has a gap for these types of songs -- it fills that gap quite nicely.

Note: I was provided a copy of the album for possible review.

Hamster Pants - Ratboy Jr.

Hamster Pants album cover

Hamster Pants album cover

Artist: Ratboy Jr.

Album: Hamster Pants

Age Range: 4 through 7

Description: Different kids musicians have different strengths -- for some it's intricately-crafted musical productions, and for others it's an energetic live show.  For the Hudson Valley duo of Timmy Sutton and Matty Senzatimore, their strength is their loopy attitude, which thoroughly permeates their music.  How thoroughly?  Well, on this, their third album, the song "Sponges" features a chorus -- an incredibly catchy one -- with the lines "Even Billy Ocean / Uses sponges from the ocean."  This is a line that really makes very little sense in the context of the song but is so goofy that it will likely delight listeners of all ages.

Their affinity for improv is heard in other songs like "Littlest Giant" and "Marian the Barbarian Librarian," which are synth-assisted raps that sound off-the-cuff and overloaded lyrically.  While I suspect those songs amuse in concert (try not to shout "Plate Tectonics" along to "Poofy"), on record I think the band shines the most when they polish their ideas into irresistible crunchy pop nuggets, like "Dancing Room."  The band also does the occasional tender song well ("Sleep Like One..." and album closer "Try").

The band brings in guest musicians (including co-producer Dean Jones) here to round out their sound on the 41-minute album.  The goofiness might be too much for the surliest and serious amongst you, but most folks young or old who've ever taken a liking to "Weird Al" Yankovic, They Might Be Giants, and Barenaked Ladies will find much of the music appealing.  Recommended.

Note: I was provided a copy of the album for possible review.