Monday, January 12, 2015

Suz Slezak - Watching the Nighttime Come

Critical darlings David Wax Museum have been creating sonically inventive and intriguing music for several years now, releasing their first album I Turned Off Thinking About in 2008. In general, the fiercely independent band showcase David Wax's exploration of the son mexicano genre; however, Suz Slezak utilizes the band's more ethereal sounds in making her album of quiet tunes: think Eno and Lanois remaking Beck's Sea Change with Ruth Moody or Aoife O'Donovan singing lead, and you have an approximation of what to expect on Watching the Nighttime Come.

The first few seconds of the album give listeners a good idea of where Slezak and her production team Josh Kaufman and Nate Martinez are coming from. Distant, echoing, atmospheric percussion leads into a simply-strummed acoustic, pedal steel, and organ, reminiscent of a long lost Friends of Dean Martinez tune, and asks the cosmic question "Where Did You Come From." Backgrounds continue to play a major part in the songs as guitar and vocal are decorated by shimmering, whispery washes of notes and chords on "You Got Love," lyrically surrounding a young child with a multitude of loving relatives and caregivers.

Slezak co-wrote the title tune "Watching the Nighttime Come" with bandmate/husband David Wax, a song that describes the wondrous aspects of a day-ending sunset and marries surfer/musician Donavon Frankenreiter's laid-back, shuffling style with Fleet Foxes' experimental sonics. The old English folk song "Leather Winged Bat" quietly choogles along like a Johnny Cash tune; and dig the great dramatic transitions from verses to choruses. Caspar Babypants recently covered this classic on his album Here I Am!, giving it new lyrics and retitling the tune "Brown and Lonely Worm." During the instrumental "Jessie's Waltz," fiddle, guitar, and organ are slowly and somberly propelled by tambourine and thudding kick drum, bringing to mind a panoramic view of the sun falling below rolling, aging hills.

One of my favorites from Watching the Nighttime Come is the epic "Tallis Canon," a 500-year-old hymn that, in the hands of Suz Slezak, sounds like a glorious outtake from Brian Wilson's Beach Boys Smile project. She and her band/producers create a track that could easily be the centerpiece of an album by The High Llamas, Stereolab, or Spiritualized. Slezak's brief version of the Chilean folk song "Caballito Blanco" begins with subtle harmonica work, then blooms into a bouncy psychedelic romp that sounds like a collaboration between Os Mutantes and Harry Nilsson. Renowned family music performer José-Luis Orozco recorded his more traditional take on the tune for his classic De Colores and Other Latin American Folk Songs for Children.

The final few songs on Watching the Nighttime Come form a trilogy of calming tunes, beginning with "The Quietest Star," a short, piano-led instrumental that features sounds of the evening twilight. Slezak closes the album with two covers, fiddler Alan Kaufman's "Yodel Lullaby" and renowned songwriter/singer Leonard Cohen's "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye." The former is a cosmic cowboy ballad that sleepily wobbles, like a tired child's nodding head; the latter, a tender breakup tune appearing on Cohen's 1967 debut Songs of Leonard Cohen, could serve as a gentle introduction for tiny ears to his catalogue.

Strictly speaking, Watching the Nighttime Come isn't a lullaby album; Slezak's songs belong in a genre I like to call "Naptime Music," songs that provide a restful background for those not quite ready to snooze. If you like Suz Slezak's work on Watching the Nighttime Come, check out Mr. David's The Great Adventures of Mr. David, Kesang Marstrand's Hello Night, or Dean Jones' Napper's Delight. And for more info about Slezak's music or tour dates, stop by the official David Wax Museum website.

Released February 10, 2015; Mark of the Leopard

Track Listing
  1. "Where Did You Come From"
  2. "You Got Love"
  3. "Watching the Nighttime Come"
  4. "Leather Winged Bat"
  5. "Jessie's Waltz"
  6. "Tallis Canon"
  7. "Caballito Blanco"
  8. "The Quietest Star"
  9. "Yodel Lullaby"
  10. "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye"

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Fox & Branch - Let Us Get Together

Fan of the oldies? I mean the reeealy old oldies? Dave Fox and Will Branch have been bringing traditional, roots, and folk music to the attention of families for two decades. The Milwaukee-based duo have issued five albums for kids and their grownups including Mama Don't Allow (2002), Did You Hear That? (2007), Take Time in Life (2009), Things are Coming My Way! (2011), and 2014's CD of originals and covers Let Us Get Together. Their recording debut Bootlegger's Blues (2001) and later album Hot Time (2007) are considered grownup releases, but hey, the entire family will dig both collections. Although their albums are great, Fox & Branch's drawing card is their interactive, informative, and entertaining live show, so make sure to catch them in concert if possible!

Let Us Get Together kicks off with a jaunty Vaudeville-blues song describing qualities that make one a "Big Kid" now, complete with a Spike Jones-inspired instrumental breakdown. The next tune suggests we respect the calmness and sanctity of nature as we walk "In the Woods," increasing the likelihood of seeing and hearing the wonders of those special places. The duo then perform their rendition of Elizabeth Cotten's "Shake Sugaree," a tune covered by Taj Mahal, Fred Neil, and Bob Dylan, among others; fiddler Susan Nicholson takes over lead vocals on the quiet song. The animals and landscape of Arizona are described during a trip out west as Tejano music spices up the tune "Tucson," and fellow Milwaukee resident Lil' Rev (aka Marc Revenson) sings the traditional Hebrew song "Zum Gali Gali" accompanied only by his banjo. The stark clarity of the performance makes it perfect for young classrooms learning the lyrics and melody.

"New Orleans Hop Scop Blues" was written by George Thomas Jr., one of the earliest champions of the boogie woogie piano style, of which this early 20th Century tune is one of the first examples. Fox & Branch perform a breezy, mandolin-led version; as a contrast, make sure to check out Bessie Smith's grittier, bluesy version! The band then promote the joys of being "Up in a Tree" as the waltzing tune describes the sense of greatness a young boy feels high in the branches. "Let Us Get Together" was written by blues singer and guitarist extraordinaire Reverend Gary Davis, who was a particular inspiration to Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady's Jefferson Airplane side project Hot Tuna (one of my favorite bands!).

The gently waltzing "Stewball," a British folk song that first appeared in the 18th Century, tells the story of a celebrated racehorse. Interestingly, John Lennon later inadvertently borrowed the melody for his single "Happy Xmas (War is Over)"! The brief and rousing instrumental "Banjo Tramp" utilizes that five-string instrument, fiddle, and tambourine to create a great square dance tune. Then the duo cover the food-related "Aiken Drum," a now-popular nursery rhyme and song from Scotland that dates back to the early 19th Century. Harold Arlen (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics) wrote "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" in 1944, and the song appeared in the film Here Come the Waves that same year. Fox & Branch's version of "Accentuate the Positive" keep the joy of the original while trimming down the musical backdrop.

"I've Been Working on the Railroad" dates back to the late 1800s, with an end section originating even earlier that century. The tune usually gets a rowdy, rousing reading; however, Fox & Branch invited recently-passed Milwaukee musical legend Larry Penn to deliver his gentle, fingerpicked version, accentuated by his warm, back porch vocals and a brief, historical medley. "Life is Good" cheerfully saunters along, cataloging the endless joys of childhood (and reminding us grownups to keep those tiny, wonderful moments in mind). The album comes to a tender close with Will Branch's "When You Were Born," as fiddle and fingerpicked guitar help celebrate the arrival of a loved one.

Not only is Let Us Get Together a nice listen, it's a great place for families to begin an exploration of blues, folk, traditional music. Like I said before, the album is just a jumping off point: go to a Fox & Branch concert and get the full experience of music history, song and performer backstories, and lots of interactive fun. Oh, and check out Jessica Billey's awesome linocut artwork that graces the cover of Let Us Get Together! The original, titled "The Gathering Tree," can be seen on Billey's website. And for tour dates and more info about the duo who created the music within the album, make sure to visit the official Fox & Branch webpage.

Released 2014; Doodleywag

Track Listing
  1. "Big Kid"
  2. "In the Woods"
  3. "Shake Sugaree"
  4. "Tuscon"
  5. "Zum Gali Gali"
  6. "New Orleans Hop Scop Blues"
  7. "Up in a Tree"
  8. "Let Us Get Together"
  9. "Stewball"
  10. "Banjo Tramp"
  11. "Aiken Drum"
  12. "Accentuate the Positive"
  13. "I've Been Working on the Railroad"
  14. "Life is Good"
  15. "When You Were Born"

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Lori Henriques - How Great Can This Day Be

How Great Can This Day Be is Portland, Oregon resident Lori Henriques' fourth album of music for families, following The World is a Curious Place to Live (2013), Outside My Door: Songs for Children of All Ages (2011), and Lullaby Piano: Peaceful Classical Pieces (2008). Right off the bat the cover art gives listeners a clue as to Henriques' musical tack, with its mod, late '50s-early'60s layout. She lists her influences for this album specifically as Mose Allison ("Parchman Farm"), Laura Nyro ("Wedding Bell Blues"), Jacques Brel ("Ne Me Quitte Pas"), Bob Dorough ("Three Is a Magic Number"), Cole Porter ("Night and Day"), and Nina Simone ("Feeling Good"); in fact, one of the appealing things about How Great Can This Day Be is how Henriques sticks to one style, jazz, rather than ping pong amongst a variety of musical techniques.
 
The album kicks off with the title tune, a lively song that utilizes a repetitive modal riff reminiscent of "So What" from Miles Davis' 1959 classic Kind of Blue. The next song finds Henriques hanging out "In a Park" in Seattle where she discovers a vast cornucopia of veggies in the community garden. She then finds her "Groove" as the band lead us through a flute-filled samba, encouraging us to move in a wide variety of ways. Brother Joel Henriques' musical saw haunts the waltzing "Beau Paris" as Henriques and her young son Leo sing us a brief French language lesson; while "Free Ride Everyday," Henriques' homage to Mr. Rogers and his show, provides another example of her use of modal chord movement.
 
The brief "I Say Woo" features a smokin' Hammond B3 organ solo by Randy Porter (look out, Sugar Free Allstars' Chris Wiser!), throws in some French verses, and utilizes that choppy hook from James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)" in creating a great live concert sing along. "Monkey Monkey Monkey" sneaks its way through the jungle via trombone and clarinet, marking humans' similarities to our fellow primates. Along with husband Matt Keeslar, Henriques assures that "I Am Your Friend," performing an absolutely cheerful song that'll remind you of a Broadway-based Lunch Money song; hey, now that Molly Ledford and gang are producing theater shows, a collaboration may not be a bad idea! The smoky "Dream Jane Dream" features Tim Jensen's Paul Desmond-like saxophone tone in Henriques' tribute to scientist Jane Goodall. The album comes to a close by describing "Another Good Year," a warmly celebratory boogie woogie tune that makes for a great Holiday Season/New Year's Eve song. Listen for Ben Medler's trumpet solo and the way the song's intro echoes The Everly Brothers' 1961 hit "Walk Right Back."
 
Lori Henriques has carved a neat little niche for herself in the world of children's music, as jazzy bands and musicians are few and far between in Kindie Rock. Her sincere dedication to jazz and the prominence of her piano skills on How Great Can This Day Be will not only appeal to those who appreciate that style but also to young families who want to have a live, jazz-filled musical experience with their children. Make sure to check the official Lori Henriques website for tour dates and more info about her music.
 
Released November 10, 2014; Human Puppy Records
 
Track Listing
  1. "How Great Can This Day Be"
  2. "In a Park"
  3. "Groove"
  4. "Beau Paris"
  5. "Free Ride Everyday"
  6. "I Say Woo"
  7. "Monkey Monkey Monkey"
  8. "I Am Your Friend"
  9. "Dream Jane Dream"
  10. "Another Good Year"

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Papa Crow - Full Moon, Full Moon

Marquette, Michigan's Papa Crow has finally released his long-awaited album Full Moon, Full Moon, his third collection of music for kids and families. The project was funded by a PledgeMusic campaign that directs a portion of the proceds to Oxfam, an organization that works to find solutions to poverty and social injustice.

The album kicks off with "Daylight in the Swamp," a brief acoustic preview of what's to come on Full Moon, Full Moon, sounding like a Ronnie Lane outtake from Rough Mix, the album on which Lane collaborated with Pete Townshend. "I've Got a Feeling" isn't The Beatles' Let It Be track; instead it's a vaudevillian celebration of another wonderful day. Papa Crow then gets us "Moving to the Beat" with a breezy, ska-influenced tune that features a nifty instrumental break. The upbeat Alt Country tune "Great White Pine" provides an up-high view of the wonders of outdoor adventures, while the increasingly loud and rowdy "I Wanna Rock & Roll" introduces the instruments of the band, punctuated by a Papa Crow guitar solo. "Outside Sounds" catalogues aural experiences that occur throughout the day via some super catchy newgrass, and the traditional country-sounding tune "Bumpy Bump Road" would make a great live concert sing along. Next comes one of the highlights of Full Moon, Full Moon, "Give Some, Get Some," a waltzing Alt Country duet with Frances England that would make Emmylou Harris and Jeff Tweedy jealous.

"In All of the World" is yet another top tune on the album; the lighter-waving, soulful song is deserving of a cover by Daptone Records recording star Charles Bradley. Papa Crow's dad wrote "The Michigan Waltz," a tune of memories; think a quieter, more contemplative version of Palmer and Ward's classic "The Band Played On." "Fireflies" juxtaposes the unlikely instrumental pals of acoustic guitar and synthesizer, and celebrates sharing the wonder of natural nighttime flashlights with our young ones. The mandolin-driven tune, "Over the Rooftops," is a family sing along that has the instrumental feel of an old folk song from Great Britain. Sounding like a minor key Neil Young classic, the title tune "Full Moon, Full Moon" anthropomorphisizes our lunar neighbor and features haunting fiddle work by Sara Pajunen. Another highlight is "A Billion Stars" whose thoughtful lyrics, chord changes, and fingerpicking style sound like a mix of Nick Drake, James Iha, and Robert Pollard. On "The Sun is Yellow" Papa Crow duets with Liat Tova Lis, a singer/songwriter who is sort of a modern day Malvina Reynolds, and the two deliver a song about opposites so simple in its lyrical design it becomes almost cosmic. Full Moon, Full Moon comes to a close with a reprise of "Daylight in the Swamp." This second time 'round, the Green Garden 4H Club band give the tune a distinctive Irish lilt, and their song-concluding laughter is a perfect way to end the album.

Sure, Jeff Krebs has released several animal- and sound-themed EPs and albums for kids, but Full Moon, Full Moon feels like his first true collection. The songs on this release speak to the entire family, they're accessible to kids while still being intelligent, and they're catchy as hell. Let's hope the Kindie Rock world hears more from Papa Crow in the future.

Released October 8, 2014; Things That Roar

Track Listing
  1. "Daylight in the Swamp"
  2. "I've Got a Feeling"
  3. "Moving to the Beat"
  4. "Great White Pine"
  5. "I Wanna Rock & Roll"
  6. "Outside Sounds"
  7. "Bumpy Bump Road"
  8. "Give Some, Get Some"
  9. "In All of the World"
  10. "The Michigan Waltz"
  11. "Fireflies"
  12. "Over the Rooftops"
  13. "Full Moon, Full Moon"
  14. "A Billion Stars"
  15. "The Sun is Yellow"
  16. "Daylight in the Swamp (Reprise)"

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Little Miss Ann - Follow Me

Chicago's Ann Torralba has released several albums of family music over the past few years, each CD better than the last. Her latest, Follow Me, continues her string of organic, thoughtful, joyful collections of tunes for music-loving families.

Follow Me kicks off with a cover of "Someday, Some Morning, Sometime," a music-less Woody Guthrie lyric that Billy Bragg and Wilco refurbished with a new melody for Mermaid Avenue Vol. II. Ann performs a much more energetic reading than Bragg and Wilco's woozy, laid back version, giving the tune a "wake up, let's live!" feeling. The title track follows, continuing the "celebrate the day" vibe; then Ann asks, "Can You Make a Circle?" as the band perform an activity song for which Kristi Thom provided the lyrics. Ann brilliantly updates the old camp song "I Love the Mountains," aka "Boom De Ah Da," by giving it more of a jam band, danceable feel (dig the groovy tambourine and flute during the instrumental interlude!). And the droning musical accompaniment and the excitedly rushed vocals in the verses make "Two's Today" sound like a long-lost Velvet Underground song.

Rather than present a typical "I miss you" tune, the singer exclaims she "Can't Wait to See You" because she wants to dance, dance, dance with her friend, as early '90s jangle pop meets Jefferson Airplane in this great movement song. Daniel Littleton and Elizabeth Mitchell of You Are My Flower join Ann on "I Got a Light," one of the highlights of Follow Me, sounding like no less than Fairport Convention playing a Decemberists song. Ann then covers Frank Loesser's "Bushel and a Peck," a tune originally written for the Broadway musical Guys and Dolls and later made famous by Perry Como and Betty Hutton. The song was also covered by fellow kindie rocker Dan Zanes on his 2000 album Rocket Ship Beach.; here, Ann updates the tune by utilizing Chris Frumkin's funky clavinet and a crowd-participatory wordless chorus. Ann then performs "Jolly Ole' Soul," an original song that sounds like it could be an ancient nursery rhyme performed by The Incredible String Band. Follow Me comes to a gentle close with the counting song, "Three Little Pumpkins," a sort of neo-bluegrass alternative to the old storytime standby "Five Little Ducks."

To my ears, the songs on Follow Me are more "feels" than compositions; Little Miss Ann seems to be writing from the soul rather than trying to document literal events with cookie cutter arrangements. It sounds as if these songs came together in the moment for Ann rather than her trying to fit a traditional "I must construct a song that fits a certain children's music style" mold. And we listeners are better off for it!

Released May 1, 2014; Late Bloomer Records

Track Listing
  1. "Someday, Some Morning, Sometime"
  2. "Follow Me"
  3. "Can You Make a Circle?"
  4. "I Love the Mountains"
  5. "Two's Today"
  6. "Can't Wait to See You"
  7. "I Got a Light"
  8. "Bushel and a Peck"
  9. "Jolly Ole' Soul"
  10. "Three Little Pumpkins"

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

An Alternative 4 from The Beatles

 
OK, I realize that the point of this release is to promote upcoming remastered music, but, c'mon, the song selection could have been a bit more imaginative. iTunes recently offered up a free four-song EP of solo material by those guys who used to be in The Beatles: John's “Love," from 1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Paul's “Call Me Back Again," from Wings’ 1975 Venus and Mars, George's “Let It Down,” from 1970’s All Things Must Pass, and Ringo's “Walk With You," from 2010’s Y Not.

A much more darkly amusing quartet of tunes would have included "How Do You Sleep?" and "Too Many People," John and Paul's respective musical "fuck you" directed toward each other right after the band's breakup. Also, George's "Sue Me, Sue You Blues," his desperately frustrated reaction to the legal wranglings that roiled within the Beatles camp post breakup, and poor Ringo's "Early 1970," the loveable drummer's message of "I miss you guys, let's get back together," would have nicely rounded out four solo Beatles tunes that revealed the Fab Four's individual takes on a difficult time in their personal and musical lives.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Happy Autumn Equinox!