Tuesday, December 12, 2006

***Stephen Cohen***

A red-jacketed band of half-human, half-animal musicians comes marching down the street, accompanied by a couple of oversized birds ... what an awesome introduction to Stephen Cohen's Here Comes the Band! With a smoky-voiced delivery, vocal phrasing a little like Rickie Lee Jones, and an intimate coffee house presentation, Portland resident Stephen Cohen whams, tickles, and strums the strings of his guitar, which acts as much a percussion instrument as a keeper of melody, intertwined with the tinkles, knocks, and wobbles of his handmade musical gear. Rhythms are suspended and sometimes done away with entirely in several songs, tying together everything in a cohesive dream-like collection of thoughts put to music. Sound too heavy for a kids' album? Au contraire, my little ones, for that's the amazing thing about this CD: yer tiny kids can sing right along with every single song on the album, while grownups can bask in the glow of Cohen's musical inventiveness. Even though Cohen has been recording since 1979, Here Comes the Band is his first album specifically for kids.

Soon-to-be Toddler Time classics include the mantra-like "Give Me That Toy!", the boppity "Mr. Knickerbocker" and "Baseball, Baseball". The controlled chaos of "The Elephant Walk" mirrors, coincidentally, sounds produced by bands of the Elephant 6 collective (Olivia Tremor Control, Neutral Milk Hotel, etc.), while the ethereal "Rain, Rain, Rain" fully utilizes Cohen's self-created percussion inventions. The three-part thread "Here Comes the Band / There Goes the Band / Sleepy Dreams (of the Band)" that runs through the CD gives Cohen a chance to name check his old group, the Talk Talk Band. By using a few tunes culled from some of his grownup albums, real life and fiction and Many Hats, Cohen shows his trust in kids' taste and intelligence. He's not making music for children, but just making music.

Not only do you get Cohen's wonderful songs, the CD is also packaged with a lyrics booklet full of artwork by Christopher Shotola-Hardt, instructions on making your own instruments, and explanations of everyone's duties in the making of a CD ("The producer chooses the songs..."). Check out more of Cohen's work, it's pretty inspiring and amazing.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

***Chucky Woodbine***

A classic reborn! Years ago, Auburn University's student radio station, WEGL, was adamantly anti-commercial. During my senior year, I remember hearing this lo-fi, herkity jerkity, melodic song called "Double Feature" about, I think, monsters and secret messages on cereal boxes. Now, that memory would have completely faded into the ether of collegehood if not for ... TAH DAH! ... the reissue of Chucky Woodbine's Misleading.

This quartet from Massachussets made a cassette-only version of Misleading back in the late-80s that included songs about woodland creatures, bullies, and some weird guy named Fred Villari. Throw in a couple of instrumentals and a punk song called "Roadkill" (chorus: "Roadkill! Roadkill!"), and you have an amusingly silly, inventive, do-it-yourselfer worthy of way more exposure than it got.

Is this kids' music? I dunno, is "Yellow Submarine", or pretty much everything Jonathan Richman ever recorded? My point is that kids are smart and have incredibly varied tastes, so anything that seems entertaining and is a little off the beaten path (i.e. - doesn't come with tie-in merchandise) should be readily introduced to kids. Go ahead, let them hear what's out there and they'll decide what they like. If your upper-elementary kid is into quirky music, is thinking about starting a band, or just likes to decipher sometimes impenetrable lyrics, he'll dig Chucky Woodbine.

Friday, December 01, 2006

***Rockosaurus Rex***

HELL YES!!! Tired of hearing toy piano versions of your favorite Toddler Time classics? Prepare your preschoolers to have their faces rocked off by "Wheels On the Bus"; "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes"; and "This Old Man" as performed by our favorite prehistoric metal gods, Rockosaurus Rex!

All you grownups will probably get a bigger kick out of this musical project from Austin, Texas, than your young'uns, but hey! crank it up and see what they think. "All the Pretty Little Horses" is given a heavy dose of Metallica, while "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" is all Anthrax'ed out. In fact, quit reading this and head for the Rockosaurus Rex website immediately, so the rockin' can commence. There are plenty of clips from The Big Bang! to which one can thrust one's fist into the air.

Make sure to read their bio, have fun with the whole concept, and unite the world through metal. Like the Rockosaurus Rex creed says, "They have come to rock the children of Earth". Amen.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

***2006 Top Twenty Albums***

If anyone is interested, here are my picks for the top 20 kids' albums of roughly 2006. My criteria were:

1. Would I, as an adult, be willing to listen to this CD over and over?
2. Is this artist presenting anything new?
3. If there are cover songs on the CD, are they performed in a unique way?
4. Does it rock?

And here they are:

Number Twenty : Electric Storyland - The Sippy Cups
Number Nineteen : Every Word I Say is True - Daniel Schorr
Number Eighteen : Plays Well with Others - Uncle Rock
Number Seventeen : World - Teacher and the Rockbots
Number Sixteen : Prelude to Mutiny - Captain Bogg & Salty
Number Fifteen : Josh Levine for Kids - Josh Levine
Number Fourteen : Eat Every Bean and Pea on your Plate - Daddy a Go Go
Number Thirteen : Rockin' in the Forest with Farmer Jason - Farmer Jason
Number Twelve : LMNO Music-Pink - Enzo Garcia
Number Eleven : Best Friends - Ellen and Matt
Number Ten : Stories from Duke Puddintown - Greg Loop
Number Nine : Jim Gill Sings Moving Rhymes for Modern Times - Jim Gill
Number Eight : The Hollow Trees - The Hollow Trees
Number Seven : ACTIVATE! - Joel Caithamer
Number Six : You Are My Little Bird - Elizabeth Mitchell
Number Five : STARBOY Soundtrack - Lee Feldman
Number Four : The Great Adventures of Mr. David - Mr. David
Number Three : Fascinating Creatures - Frances England
Number Two : When I Grow Up - dog on fleas
Number One : "Hey You Kids!" - The Jellydots

Monday, November 13, 2006

***Jason Falkner***

What happens when a new baby comes into your life? Well, you stumble through your work day in a proud, drowsy stupor; you marvel at the awesomeness of your newly-constituted family unit; and you end up not giving a crap about stuff like kids' record reviews. So, after taking three weeks off when our son was born, and in the midst of another three as my wife goes back to work, I have fallen way behind on what's going on in the world of children's music.

An old bandmate recently reminded me of this CD, though, as he and his wife had a baby in September and wondered if I had reviewed, or even heard, the album. Now, as a band we collectively worshipped the Beatles and deeply admired the work of Jason Falkner, a musician I've mentioned a few times in past reviews. The combination of the two couldn't possibly miss, I thought, and I was right. BUT the resulting CD, Bedtime with the Beatles, released on Sony Wonder in 2001, sounded nothing like I had imagined. Falkner is somewhat famous for his "wall-of-sound" production, so I expected jaunty, finger-poppin' Beatles instrumentals. Falkner, however, decided to slow everything down, keep it all relaxed, and turn in a truly inspired lullaby album.

Most songs are pretty faithful to the originals, with material chosen from A Hard Day's Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Magical Mystery Tour, the "White Album", and Let It Be. But Falkner uses just the right amount of ambient sounds and personal touches in decorating his lovingly recreated instrumental versions of Beatles classics to make the songs unique. The clavinet runs during "Blackbird" and the small swells of strings at the end of "Michelle" will catch your ear; and at a lullaby's pace, you can really hear the beauty of the melodies in "And I Love Her" and "Here There and Everywhere".

Bedtime with the Beatles has been road tested, as well: my wife and I play the CD every night during our little one's bathtime, and he really digs it. It makes the whole end-of-the-night routine a very soothing experience for everyone (plus, it's hard not to sing along quietly to all the songs). A must have for all new parents (the CD is available in blue and pink), for Beatles fans, and for music lovers in general. Beautiful stuff.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

***The Jellydots***

This is it, folks. You're looking at, and will soon be listening to, the future of Kids' Music. Like trying to find the horizon from the shore through a misty fog, genre lines have become so blurred that soon we can simply say, this is music. Period. The fact that this music can't be shoved into a specific category speaks volumes of the increasing confidence in kids' taste and intelligence, that you don't have to skimp on talent or effort just because it's an album for children. In fact, more and more artists are putting extra effort into children's music because of the fact that it's a kids' CD.

So, welcome to our world, Jellydots! a band so good it's a shame they're not pop stars, but, luckily for kids' music fans, are guaranteed to be h-u-g-e within the next year. If you need a musical peg upon which to hang this unique hat, think Jason Falkner playing Schoolhouse Rock songs with Elliot Smith's writing help ... and we'll come back to that later.

On "Hey You Kids!", yer gonna hear songs about the important minutia of childhood memories: a square of sunlight on the bedroom wall, the blue-green eyes of a new kitten, using both hands to eat a cookie, the longing plea for one more glass of water in order to stave off sleep. But hidden within these deceptively simple superpop kids' songs are messages of self-importance, of the assurance of being comforted, of retribution and its consequences, of the humanizing effect of connecting with others on a personal level, ... and all of this in a voice not heard since the Schoolhouse Rock series. Those writers, as well as Doug, have the innate ability to speak the thoughts of children in a child's own articulate voice, free-flowing and imaginative, full of wonder and with an eye for detail, details that are especially meaningful to children.

So, try to find a better pop song than "Bicycle", c'mon, I dare you; then discover the consequences of washing a cookie in the sink in "Mr. Cookie". Dig the instrumental bridge near the end of the title tune and try not to dance with glee; then groove to the Tuff Gong vibe of "Lake Rules", and relive the unabashed joy of a day on the water (with a wink at The Bee Gees).

Oh, the lyrical and musical brilliance of "I'm Not Ugly (You're Not Either)", a tune that verbally wraps around itself, and is most like a Schoolhouse Rock song than any other on the album. And I can totally see a crowd of Second-Graders going absolutely apeshit when they hear "Race Cars Go" rev up! The partying continues with "Three is a Magic Number" and its eyeball-blistering guitar solo.

The last four songs on the CD will soothe your little one into blissful slumber, including the impossibly beautiful "Captain Sleep", and the achingly sweet album-closer "My Blanket", whose lyrics include the lines: "Stellar bits and particles that make up you and me / We could float around and settle down inside a symphony / Some day, and that's where we would stay / You'll be E and I'll be A". Yes.

The Jellydots are actually the project of Doug Snyder, a musician and songwriter based in Austin, Texas, an appropriately creative home for a group like this. "Hey You Kids!" is more or less a compilation of Snyder's best tracks from the past few years, stemming from guitar instruction classes he conducts with children. And since the basic tracks (drums, bass, rhythm guitar) were recorded together, all the songs keep their "right there in the same room" feel (the drums are especially tasty). The three new tunes on "Hey You Kids!" - "Bicycle", "Captain Sleep" and a cover of the classic "Three is a Magic Number" - are beyond wonderful, and if that's the new stuff, who knows what this guy's capable of?!?

If you're anywhere near Texas, check out the Jellydots, it may be the last chance you have to see them play live before they become megapopular. They could equally rock the crowd at both the SXSW Music Festival and the World Cafe Kids' Stage. Explore the Jellydots MySpace site and check out their television performance, featuring David the Dancing Donkey. And while you're at it, buy five copies of "Hey You Kids!", give one to your local library, give three to your closest friends, and keep one for yourself and/or your little ones and play repeatedly. It'll make the world a more beautiful place.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Captain Bogg & Salty live at Donnell!

With hook hands aloft and landlubbers a-sway, Captain Bogg and Salty heartily entertained the crowd at the Donnell Central Children's Room yesterday. These guys are incredibly witty and engaging, so if you have a chance, go check out their live show. They are touring extensively this Fall, playing places as varied as children's libraries and well-known clubs, like Maxwell's in Hoboken.

Thanks again for a great show, guys!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

***Farmer Jason***

Leave it to this guy to make the forest seem like the coolest place in the world! For his second kids' album, Farmer Jason leaves the ranch for a while and takes us on a trip through the woods. Rockin' in the Forest with Farmer Jason not only rocks harder in some places than his first CD for kids, A Day at the Farm - both of which are now available on the Kid Rhino label - but the songs are also more varied on Forest, making this follow-up an even stronger collection than Farm, if that's possible.

The album kicks off with chugging guitars, melodic trumpets, and a pennywhistle guiding us through "The Forest Oh!" Jason shows his rockin' roots with "Punk Rock Skunk", an all-out rocker that fades with a gang of kids chanting "Hey Ho, Let's Go!", as well as with the "File Under: Anarchy in the Pre-K" suggestion on the CD cover. Sly music biz dig: "There's a lot of singers smell / and they end up with a hit".

"Ode to a Toad" uses Dylan's "Hurricane" groove to tell the story of a ... well ... toad! Jason then channels Woodie Guthrie on the brief a capella tune, "Mrs. Mouse". You can play a guessing game with Farmer Jason on the Bo-Diddley-beat "Forest Rhymes", a song that, I must admit, is soothing to these Deep Southern ears, as Farmer Jason pronounces the word "cheer" with three syllables (chu-ae-uhr).

Todd Snyder then joins the fun on the boistrous "He's a Moose on the Loose", a jaunty "Sugar Shack"-meets-the-Tijuana Brass rocker; while "Arrowhead", besides being a beautifuly-written tune, may be the only kids' song penned specifically about the Shawnee Tribe.

"Catfish Song" rumbles along like that whiskered critter on a riverbed bottom, then Webb Wilder contributes some blazin' guitar work on the rocker "Opossum in a Pocket". The jazzy, spoken-word "A Butterfly Speaks" lets us listen in as a butterfly ponders the reason he's called a butterfly; and the album ends with "The Old Oak Tree", a majestic country song about that mighty timber.

Jason's strengths as a songwriter are evident on Rockin' in the Forest, as he knows just when to use double-tracked lead vocals, when to drop in a second or third harmony, and how to hook the listener with incredibly singalongable choruses. It's no surprise, then, that Ringenberg just signed a songwriting deal with Lionsgate Music & Publishing, a move that will introduce his songs to a wider audience. More recognition = more opportunities to make music = more Farmer Jason CDs! See you in the forest!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

***Ellen and Matt***

OK, let's put this CD in, give it a listen ... hmmm, "Eat My Dinner", pretty good kids' stuff ... whoa, nice harmonies ... wow, great middle eight ... holy crap! did that guy just rock a guitar solo on a kids album?!? Yes!!!

And on and on ... The surprises never end on this CD, and that's one of the things I love about it. First, it's a lot of fun to hear a kids' album and wonder if it really is a kids' album. The music is so great that, if you didn't listen to the lyrics, you would swear this was some new indie rock CD. Second, every time you think you know what's coming next, you get thrown a curve melodically or composition-wise. Los Angeles-based Ellen and Matt Kennedy recently released their debut children's CD, Best Friends, on their own 3 Suns Records, and they seem to be one of the few kids' groups who aren't retired rockers or vying for a spot on Nick Jr.

The title tune begins as a tender waltz-time piano solo, then surprise! crunchy guitars and splashy drums are pushed to the forefront. And check out the unbelieveable middle eight, right before the ... surprise! whistling solo! Then, imagine taking your kids to Preschool story time and surprise! the Pixies show up and play a song for them ... you'd probably hear "Bounce". "Go To Bed" starts out as an appropriately dreamy-sounding tune, then surprise! it morphs into THE LOUDEST bedtime song you will ever hear, a song Billy Corgan forgot to include on Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.

Other great songs include the dryly-produced "Juice Box Rock", whose clipped vocals and chugging guitars perfectly mimic classic Ramones; "Fly Away", straight out of The Sundays' greatest hits bag-o-tunes (and wait 'till the chorus hits!); the manic "Under Construction", which, if you go by the urgent tempo and unrelenting buzz of the guitars, lets you know someone is really ready for the Los Angeles Zoo to reopen; and "Side by Side", which includes my favorite line: "It's good to know that I might fall/ But it's worth it if I try", a good philosophy for both learning to ride a bike and for life in general.

The Kennedys' empathietic lyrics about kid concerns like friendship, courage, bicycles, bedtime, dreams, zoos, and, of course, juice boxes, show a great talent for writing from and relating to a child's perspective. Musically, the songs on Best Friends are shaded with light brushstrokes of George Harrison, Sloan, the Sundays, the Byrds, Fleetwood Mac, Smashing Pumpkins, Blondie, the Ramones, and, yes, (even their website admits it) the Carpenters.

In my opinion, here's what makes Best Friends a successful album: the songwriters wrote great songs, they didn't try to write what they thought everyone thinks a kids' song should be; they produced the album with their own ears, and didn't try to create a glossy soundtrack to a kids' tv show. These guys could fill both the Lower East Side's Bowery Ballroom with hipster post-college musicheads, and Brooklyn's Willy Bee's Family Lounge with toddlers and their grownups. Great tunes, great production (especially the drums), great debut CD.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

***Elizabeth Mitchell***

You know you're doin' somethin' right when Smithsonian Folkways comes a-knockin'. And I'm pretty sure this label is well aware they have the next Ella Jenkins on their hands.

Anyone who is familiar with Elizabeth Mitchell's work wouldn't expect anything less than brilliance on her newest CD, You Are My Little Bird, and she certainly delivers. Your hipster buddies will perk up their ears when they hear covers of the Velvet Underground, Bob Marley, and Neil Young, and find out that John Sebastian helped out a little bit musically. My only complaint is that the CD comes with such thorough liner notes, it took some of the fun out of researching the song sources! So instead of having to read my boring descriptions, just play the CD and dig her minimalist version of "Three Little Birds", the a cappella "Little Liza Jane" and "Grassy Grass Grass", the acoustic rock and roll of "What Goes On", and her beautifully ethereal "If You Listen", a song originally recorded by Francoise Hardy and written by a pre-Foreigner Mick Jones (!).

Having become as adept as the aforementioned Ms. Jenkins at song collecting and interpretation, Elizabeth Mitchell is certainly in a position to become one of America's great music voices. This album is the aural equivalent of gauzy curtains billowing in the summer breeze, so, put it on, enjoy the vibe, and be happy about the fact that together you and your kids can listen to wonderfully performed music penned by writers as disparate as Woody Guthrie, Lou Reed, and Vashti Bunyan. Beautiful, beautiful stuff.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

***Mister Laurence***

There's a musical legend living in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, R. Stevie Moore, who pretty much invented the D.I.Y. ethic in the late 60s, early 70s. Since that time, he has recorded literally hundreds of cassette tapes, vinyl LPs, and CDs, all chock full of his off-kilter yet brilliantly perfect pop compositions, writing, playing, recording, and producing everything himself.

Tucked away in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is Laurence Bond Miller, aka Mister Laurence, the children's music version of R. Stevie Moore. Since 1999 Miller has released five CDs, Flaghorn, Tugboat Tow, Bubbleland, Pure Gibberish!, and Recess Forever!, with another, Marmaline, to be released soon. I can't recommend one CD over another, so browse Mr. L's witty, silly website and check out the awesomeness of individual tracks like "Bubbleland", "Recess Forever", "Is There an Echo in the Room?", "Little Flower", "Jack 'N' Jill's Hill", and the Zen sentiments of "The Sky is in the Sky!" and "We Won't Be Afraid" (Even if we are afraid / We won't be afraid).

The only group who comes close to his combination of inventiveness and quirkiness is They Might Be Giants, who would be well advised to team up with Mister Laurence and create the greatest kids' album ever. Hey, it could happen!

Friday, August 25, 2006

***Josh Levine***

Let's see, what are the odds of coming across a kids' performer who just happens to work regularly with a legendary Cuban musician? Pretty good, actually, if you're in Manhattan! Professional bassist Josh Levine has combined the varied influences from his rich musical background to create what might be the kids' album most likely to induce spontaneous salsa dancing.

For his debut children's CD, Josh Levine for Kids, Levine put together a collection of traditional tunes, originals, and incredibly interesting cover songs. Double-tracked vocals, thick harmonies, generous use of a Venezuelan cuatro, and, of course, a booming acoustic bass, all recorded in Levine's apartment (let's hear it for indie rock!), make for a hugely entertaining album.

You get a great idea of what to expect for the rest of the album when Florentino Ruiz Carmona's "Tiburon" bursts from the speakers. Levine also covers Bill Staines' classic kids' song "A Place in the Choir", and Gil Raldiris' perfect preschool singalong activity tune "Mi Cuerpo Hace Musica". Again, an album full of traditional songs could go horribly boring, but wow, Levine really puts a spicy twist on oldies like "Jump Jim Joe", "I Am a Pumpkin", "The Hokey Pokey", "This Land is Your Land", "If You're Happy and You Know It", and even "Cumpleanos Feliz".

Levine contributes an impressive handful of originals, including the world-as-global-community message of "A Real Bouquet", cowritten with Edith Segal; and the joyous "I've Got Music in My Soul". Of course as a professional bass player, Levine made sure the low end was pushed to the forefront, and rightfully so. Every song sounds stronger for it, and seems to make the album even more of a hip shaking, hand clapping experience.

In the grownup music world, Levine performs with Son Amigos, a trio that includes legendary guitarist Jose Luis Martinez, who was an early member of the groundbreaking Cuban band Los Van Van, and can also be heard throughout the New York City area performing with the quartet Los Acustilocos, with songwriter/musician Angus Martin, and with vocalist Francine Morin ... busy, busy guy!

Full of short, intimate performances (four songs come in under the one-minute mark!) Josh Levine for Kids is a great, great resource for toddler and preschool programming, as well as a flat-out fun album to listen to loudly at home. Warn your downstairs neighbors, though: uncontrolled dancing is guaranteed!

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

***Enzo Garcia***

With an earthy voice remarkably similar to Burl Ives', and a one-man-band arsenal of instruments, San Francisco-based children's entertainer and musical educator Enzo Garcia presents his ninth (ninth!) CD of kids' music, LMNO Music-Pink.

Garcia constantly develops new movement and music programs for his LMNO Music sessions, and the resulting songs are translated to CD. If you scan the titles on this and other LMNO Music albums, you'll notice that many of the tunes are traditional songs, which can be a tricky thing for most performers. But Garcia makes these songs his own, convincing you that he wrote "Jim Along Josie", "Looby Loo", and "Trot Old Joe" himself.

The spoken word chants "Here is the Sea" and "Let's Make Pizza" are reminiscent of Woody Guthrie's classic LP Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child. And the fact that he makes slight changes in the chord progressions of his "Hello" and "Goodbye" songs shows that Garcia doesn't take his audience's intelligence for granted: even the tiniest kid can differentiate between the beginning and the end of the program by the music, even if he or she can't speak yet. But the gem of the album is Garcia's own "Hold My Hand", one of those songs that makes you sing along loudly and dance in circles with your loved ones every time you hear it.

Intimate, rhythmic, and wonderfully played, Enzo Garcia's LMNO Music-Pink is a fun album that belongs in every home, classroom, and Toddler Time collection. Another classic from the west coast!

Monday, July 31, 2006

***Mr. David***

When I initially heard about this CD and it's artist, there was talk of "the Bob Dylan of Children's Music", the kind of overgeneralized assessment that, say, People Magazine would give any performer who plays acoustic guitar. But the first time, the second time, the third time I listened to this album I couldn't believe what I was hearing: Stream of consciousness songs; rhythmless rhythms; almost impromptu backing vocals; world music, but not from this world; and a vocal delivery that lets you know this artist is not performing for label owners, music reviewers, or distribution managers ... he's performing music from his heart for himself, and if you dig it, cool. And that is precisely what Dylan would have done.

David Alexandrou (aka Mr. David) kicks off The Great Adventures of Mr. David with what seems at first to be a typical kids' song, with lyrics about making a sandwich (albeit with peanut butter from the sky and a blueberry jellyfish), but as he strums along and the lyrics become more Dadaist you begin to get the hint that something special is going on. It seems a recent trip to Mexico, among other events, made a profound impact on Alexandrou's outlook on life, and that shift in perspective has been translated to The Great Adventures. Scenes from a cabana, epic stories of the sea, a wildly enthusiastic original version of "La Cucaracha", Zen observations of the joys of a backyard ... the sound is so laid back, sometimes, that it seems like David's backing band, particularly the horns, are recording their parts while leaning back against a stucco-walled cafe with a frozen drink close at hand. And the rich, organic production gives the recordings an even more intimate feel.

Wonder what kind of kids' song Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass might have come up with? Listen to "Hello". Then "Come To the Plaza" and join the unbridled joy found therein, discuss the philosophical musings of lizards and fish as they contemplate their existence, wonder at a grandson's profound faith in the healing powers of his dinosaur sippy cup, and marvel at the precious treasure that is a home run ball.

And then comes the good stuff. Percussion instruments appear and disappear during the surreal and beautiful "In the Storm, Fighting the Octopus"; and rhythms chase each others' tails throughout the best cosmic beach song Brian Wilson never wrote, "Surf's Up All Around the World". And David's "Mother Goose Medley" combines powerpop and minimalism to create a string of tunes that seems like a child dreaming about memories of songs he's heard that day.

This is a great one to listen to on your iPod while lounging on the beach with your toes in the sand, or relaxing on the living room couch in the middle of the afternoon with your little ones. Another indie rock masterpiece that kids, grownups, college students ... that everyone will fall more in love with every time they listen to it.

Monday, July 24, 2006

***E-CLEC-TRIC Classroom***

A man, his dog, and his guitar ... no, not the dog's guitar, the man's ... see, a dog can't ... nevermind. This is kids' music unplugged, really unplugged. But Rob Levitt pulls it off wonderfully, making the listener believe he is singing only to him. Boys and girls, the E-CLEC-TRIC Classroom Presents: Buster & Rob and Other Cool Kids' Songs!

Rob is a Kindergarten teacher at Shady Grove Elementary in Ambler, Pennsylvania, and has mastered the art of writing lyrics from his students' points of view. Songs like "Polite", "I Like Me", and "Responsibility" detail the joy and excitement of growing up, and the hard work that comes with getting older. "Snow Day", "Show & Tell", "Cloudsong", and "Math" (which bears a more than passing resemblance to the structure of the Beastie Boys' song "Girls") are great snapshots of days and moments in the lives of six- and seven-year-olds. Even the way Rob manages to smoosh lots of words into the lines of some of his songs reminds you of the rush of dialogue that sometimes erupts from a little kid's mouth. A good example can be found in the song "Responsibility", in which a young student observes "It's not the mailman's job to bring in my folder / Or the lady who smiles and takes my lunch money / It's not a job for my dog, who chews my homework to bits at night / It's a job for me."

A yardstick I use to measure the quality of songs is to imagine a converse presentation of an album. In other words, listen to an album of heavily-produced songs and imagine them stripped down to the point of being played on an acoustic guitar. If they still sound good, then they're good songs (some of David Bowie's later songs are good examples). On the other hand, take an acoustic album and picture the songs being played by a full group, like the E Street Band or Tom Petty's Heartbreakers. If the songs still seem like they would rock, then they're good songs. Rob's CD falls into the latter category, and it would actually be really cool to hear full-on rock and roll versions of these songs.

In a genre of children's music that sometimes has trouble keeping a listener's interest, Rob Levitt's solo acoustic CD is heads and shoulders above the rest, delivering a collection of funny, interesting, and relevant songs that early Elementary kids will get and parents will dig. Let's hope Buster & Rob is the first of many great kids' albums from Rob.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

***Duke Puddintown***

Wanna try the rowdiest dance since the Hokey Pokey? Do the "Hurley Burley Stew"! Need an awesome pop song about caring for nature and your fellow human beings? Add "Respect" to your iPod. Been looking for a tune featuring a dog, some pasta, and a peppery breeze? Then, "Poodles and Strudel" is your number. Welcome to Duke Puddintown!

After rocking the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia music scenes, Greg Loop decided to settle down and start a family. The songwriting bug kept biting, but now the results were kids' songs. Armed with a guitar, a bass, and a snare, tons of harmonies and an album's worth of great tunes, Greg Loop recorded Stories from Duke Puddintown in his basement (yes! indie rock rules!), and let the rest of the world know about a mystical, mythical town founded by Great Grand Pappy Cappy Puddintown, and named after his dog, Duke.

You'll find songs about sea adventures, a flying dog, the beauty of the outdoors, a Jamaican family who sailed on a boat of feathers, an environmentally conscious sailor, feelings and social interaction, all backed by irresistibly poppy music. What makes this collection of tunes even more fun is that many of the songs reference each other, giving it the feel of a complete story, like chapters in a seaside folktale. The wordless harmonies and ringing banjo of the instrumental "Butterflies", the story-within-a-story of "Kido Skido", and the epic "Salty Knobby Knees" are great examples of the uniqueness of Stories from Duke Puddintown.

Loop's masterful wordplay skills and ability to write lyrics with a child's imagination really set this album apart from the pack. This is a fun, sweet, catchy CD, Greg's first but hopefully not his last. He makes frequent appearances at Pittsburgh's South Side Works summer series, so if you're in the area, check him out. And say "hi" to Duke and all his friends.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

***dog on fleas***

This is music from the earth, an autobiography of the rocks and dirt, rivers and breezes of the Hudson Valley, somehow miraculously channeled through the musicians known as dog on fleas. On their latest masterpiece, When I Get Little, they work their musical magic and make new originals sound like Reconstruction-era classics, while transforming traditional tunes into vibrant and alive dog on fleas creations. Several years of performing and composing together seem to have made the band an impressively cohesive unit, which is a rare thing in kids' music. It doesn't hurt to have three songwriters and four lead singers in the same group, either.

Once again, dog on fleas call upon the spirit of The Band for songs like the witty "When I Get Little", the I-can't-help-but-dance "The Moon Song" (psst, grownups, listen for references to Bowie, Pink Floyd, and the Who), and the lazy front porch shuffle "Come On Down". Check out the splendorous pastoral rock of "Green Grass of Summer", a song that would certainly make Teenage Fanclub jealous. "Honeybaby" is a sweet and simple ode to a child that cleverly uses Gingerbread Boy imagery, while the rowdy "Ridin' On a Pony" contains some impressively complex vocal gymnastics. And I dare you to try and sit still during the Cajun raveup "Mon Pain Perdu". If Ray Charles went to Memphis and recorded a song about his love of forestry, it would sound like the John Hughes-sung "Trees"; while pianist Debbie Lan says "Peace Will Come" if we practice kindness, love, service, honesty, joy, and unity. David Levine's "Babeo", besides being a precious song, is modern Americana: I suspect you will find this very tune in an American Folk Song compendium somewhere down the line. And "The Coo Coo", well, this song defies categorization. I guarantee you won't hear another tune like it on a kids' album outside of West Africa this year. The album ends with the 4/4, 2/4 rhythm workout "Scratch My Back", in which you can clearly hear the glee in singer Dean Jones' voice. And the whole project is anchored by Chris Cullo's invisible drumming, meaning that it's so well done and integrated into the songs, you don't notice it at first. Go back and listen again for the brilliant drum work.

What makes this album so enjoyable for all ages is the fact that the band weave messages of world brotherhood into the rockin' party ska song and nursery rhyme allegory "What's Behind the Wall"; of the cyclical reality of life (and a political barb) into the tender "Big Black Snake"; of pay-it-forward philosophy into the loping "Give It Away", and of the reliabilty of nature into the riverboat dance tune "The Moon Song", which contains my favorite line: "Forces greater than math control us / We're swimming in a cosmic bath, don't you know it".

This is adult music for children, kids' music for grownups. What ties everything together, though, is a feeling of global kindness and a love of and appreciation for nature and the gifts she has to offer, as well as taking joy in the tiniest details of life. Listen to this album with your kids, and often. They may not get the deeper messages at first but their little intuitions will pick up on the good vibes, on the fact that these musicians and singers have meaningful things to say. But don't think that this is a dour, social commentary-heavy album. In fact, make sure you listen to When I Get Little without your shoes on, else you'll dance right out of 'em.

Friday, July 14, 2006

***Jim Gill***

One sentence review: The soundtrack of a Broadway musical about the best Toddler Time ever. OK, I can't stop with one sentence, so I'll just say that anyone who begins an album with a reference to the Marx Brothers is aces with me.

Jim Gill's newest musical offering, Jim Gill Sings Moving Rhymes for Modern Times, is the fifth in his series of wonderful kids' albums, and they just keep getting better. This aptly-named collection of tunes contains several movement and activity songs, along with some singalongs, call-and-response songs, and narrated tunes, all disguised as well-written, witty, and professionally and enthusiastically played songs.

Several of the tunes would work well with a preschool group, including the instructional "Swing Your Partner", the Simon Says-like "Jump Up, Turn Around", and the hand motion workout of "Sliding, Rolling, and Jumping". They're such great numbers in and of themselves that you forget these are basically activity songs. You want silly? Listen to "Family Goodbyes", "Face the Facts", and "Backwards Day". Jim lets his band stretch out and show their chops on "Drumming the House", "Delay on the Freeway", "Crazy Shoes Theme", and "Jim Gill's Groove", while the men's chorus accompaniment in "Hello, I Must Be Going", "Strollin' Down the Road", and "Face the Facts" reminds this listener of the group on Monty Python's Flying Circus who would appear out of nowhere and sing an appropriately silly song. Jim rounds out the album with the Pete Seeger-like "California", an image of tiny Jim Gill hanging on to a trombone for dear life in "Tromboning", and the happy-go-lucky sentiment of "Strollin' Down the Road". It's reassuring to know that there are artists who have enough faith in their little listeners to include lyrics about catalytic converters, staccato notes, and trombones, and to feature multirhythmic, multipart arrangements.

Jim is a passionate advocate of libraries and the power they can have in our children's lives, especially in their use as showcases of great performers and their music. He's also a strong believer in non-commercial kids' music, that is, music that is not manufactured specifically for mass sale and distribution through conglomerate media machines who know whit about children's imaginations and intelligence. I'll quit ranting long enough to encourage you to visit Jim's website, talk to him about the current and future states of this genre called "Children's Music", and let him know what a great job he's doing. Captain Spaulding would be proud.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

***a peaceful editorial***

I don't know if it's because I'm to be a father very, very soon for the first time, or because I work with kids on a daily basis, or because my indignation toward stupid stuff is growing proportionately with my age, but I suspect it was because several events seemed to coincide at the right moment to make me want to write this article.

A coworker commented on the relentless broadcast of pictures of Zarqawi's face after his death, and we discussed how it seemed that there is no balance in the presentation of images and ideas in mainstream media, that is, why can't kids be bombarded with peaceful, loving, triumphant, kind images and ideas every once in a while? OK, fair enough, seems like a good idea, but where do you start? How can I do anything about such a seemingly overwhelming issue? Well, I'm a big believer in "from the bottom up" policies, getting things done beginning at the lowest level, starting a revolution one person at a time, beginning with yourself.

A new children's book came across our desks recently, actor Jeremy Gilley's Peace One Day: The Making of World Peace Day, illustrated by Karen Blessen, and published last year by G.P. Putnam's Sons. It's the recounting of Gilley's struggle to make September 21 an annual day of global cease-fire, his meetings with various world leaders, and the pleas he made for his cause. The basic point of his book was that each individual person in this great big world CAN make a difference.

Then an article in the Spring 2006 issue of USBBY (the newsletter of the United States Board on Books for Young People, Inc.) caught my eye: The Sixth IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Regional Conference was recently held at Callaway Gardens, Georgia, and their theme was Children's Books: Messengers of Peace. The conference also unveiled a joint project of USBBY and the Children's Book Council: the Outstanding International Books committee, whose members include a former mentor, I'm proud to say. The committee's goal is to produce an annual list of magnificent children's books originally published outside the United States, in order to bridge the cultural gap between American children and children from around the world. The main point, though, of the conference and the newly inaugurated book committee was that a single book placed in the hands of a single child CAN make a difference.

Finally, I recently relistened to an album I hadn’t heard in years, Harry Nilsson’s The Point!, possibly the greatest kids’ album ever. The basic story is that a kid lives in a land of pointy-headed people, only he doesn’t have a point on his head, and is subsequently banished. While wandering outside his homeland, he discovers that not everyone is like his fellow countrymen, that some things are round. Not only does Nilsson get across an important concept, he uses McCartney-like music and Lennonesque lyrics, along with Beach Boys-inspired harmonies to deliver his message. Through a simple children’s album Nilsson reminds us that each child in our homes, classrooms, and libraries is important, that everyone has a point in this world, that everybody CAN make a difference.

Postscript: the Spring 2006 issue of Children and Libraries (the Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children) contains an article called Books as Passports: How Books Can Aid Global Understanding. The ALSC International Relations Committee created two bibliographies that are designed to accurately depict contemporary life in other countries, another great way to familiarize your kids with children from around the globe, to make our world a more understandable place. Check out this link. Make a difference. Bombard your kids with a little peace, love, and understanding. What's so funny 'bout that?

Saturday, July 08, 2006


An extraterrestrial who loves Puerto Rico, a race of sponges waiting for their savior, a cry for help in the form of a Philly soul doo wop song … yep, sounds like STARBOY!

Musician and songwriter Lee Feldman created STARBOY with animator Joe Campbell, both residents of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. The project premiered at Millenium Film Archives in 2004 and was shown and performed with a live band in 2005 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. OK, here’s the story: STARBOY’s planet becomes unsuitable for living, so he comes to Earth to live with his uncle, an antisocial mathematician. STARBOY sees the same girl every day in a Greek diner in Brooklyn, and they fall in love. The girl, who loves contrapuntal music, works for a self-loathing boss who runs a sponge factory. The boss goes spear fishing for the very same family of sponges STARBOY is destined to save, only to shoot and injure STARBOY, who returns to his planet. Got it? Don’t worry, STARBOY isn’t mortally wounded, which is good news for haters of fatal endings, and even better news for lovers of possible sequels. The underlying themes of destiny, loneliness, love, self-discovery, and acceptance are intertwined within this sometimes enigmatic, but exceptionally fascinating story.

The piano-driven soundtrack is a poptastic treat, something like Ben Folds Five meets Abbey Road-era Beatles, with a little low-key Broadway thrown in. Every song is so wonderfully melodic and full of hooks you can’t help but sing them to yourself the rest of the day. And the animation is just as unforgettable: like a widescreen lava lamp, the computer-aided-design figures and backgrounds gracefully flow and pulse as the story moves along. The music from STARBOY is available separately, for the adults who want to sneak a listen on the commute to work or after the kids are asleep. It’s that good. Really.

So, if your little ones are into more advanced music forms, or are fans of unique animation styles, I would highly recommend this DVD, and most certainly the CD soundtrack. As for the appropriate viewing age, Mr. Feldman himself said that Toddlers and preschoolers seem to dig it more that older kids, in spite of the sad ending, maybe because the tiny ones innately know that life is mysterious and not necessarily fair. A far better review than I could ever have written.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Take that, Lord Voldemort!!!

You know what rocks? Libraries.

Know what else rocks? Punk rock.

Know what else rocks? Teenagers who have the guts, foresight, and intelligence to put together a project like Harry and the Potters, the only band in the world whose recorded output is dedicated to J.K. Rowling's massively popular franchise. These guys tour libraries nationwide playing punk rock songs about the students, teachers, and creatures of Hogwarts, and have a rabid following you would not believe.

Yesterday, Harry and the Potters and (with special permission from Lord Voldemort) their rival band Draco and the Malfoys (boooooo!), played the Donnell Library Center's main auditorium. What impressed me most was the fact that the auditorium was packed and overflowing with supposedly jaded Manhattan teenagers who sang along heartily with every single word of every single song. That rocks.

(above and right: Harry & the Potters)

(above and right: Draco & the Malfoys)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

***Farmer Jason***

Alt country, Country Music, country rock ... call the music on this CD what you will, but it sure beats the hell out of anything you would hear on CMT today. Ever wondered what a typical day on a farm would be like? Well, you've come to the right place. Farmer Jason will personally take you on a guided tour of A Day At the Farm!

Jason Ringenberg spent several years as ringleader of Jason and the Scorchers, and if you ever got a chance to see one of their rowdy shows or listen to any of their riproaring rock/country hybrid records, you'll recognize his trademark eeeeelongated vowels. A Day At the Farm, Jason's first CD as Farmer Jason, was released in 2003 on Chapel Hill, North Carolina's, Yep Roc Records. The album begins with a rooster's crow, which lets everybody know it's time to "Get Up Up Up!" (check out the awesome hook in the middle eight). Then the semi-autobiographical "Guitar Pickin' Chicken" livens up things even more. A banjo accompanies the bumpy ride of "Whoa There Pony", and the real rock begins when the "Tractor Goes Chug Chug Chug". "I'm Just an Old Cow" pays homage to Johnny Cash's Sun Records era, followed by the foot stompin', guitar crunchin' "He's a Hog Hog Hog". Then come two great Toddler Time singalongs, "The Doggie Dance" and "Little Kitty". A fiddle and a banjo anchor the old time mountain music of "Corny Corn", and some spicy Cajun flavor is added to the rollicking "Hey Little Lamb", another oughta-be-a-chart-topper. Finally, everybody settles in for the night with "Sundown On the Farm", Jason's peaceful duet with Tahra Dergee, star of Nashville Public Television's Tahra Time.

So, this is what it would be like to have the nicest, most patient, rockin'est uncle, ever, walking around with you on his farm. Jason narrates between each song, giving short descriptions of the chores and animals of each upcoming tune. This is the perfect CD for a 30-minute drive, when you can let your little one's imagination take over. Or put this one on while you play farm on the living room floor. Even though you might have missed it when it first came out, A Day At the Farm is a definite must-have. It's just amazing that kids' albums exist which include at least four songs that could be in the Country Music top ten charts. And that's the way it should always be.

Check out some of Farmer Jason's favorite things to do and places to visit in Pennsylvania this summer!

Friday, June 23, 2006

***Joel Caithamer***

Why isn't this guy more famous? I mean, he's got the rockabilly sound down pat, he sings about big bad wolves and Evel Knievel, and he's incredibly busy in his own library ... check out Joel Caithamer's ACTIVATE! and get ready to rock the town!

The album opens with an upright bass-slappin' song where ol' wolfie admits that, yes, I am a "Big Bad Wolf", but I'm not that bad. Then we find out that "Bobby's Been Bad but Wanda's Been Worse", after an overdriven harmonica solo blasts out of the speakers and a babysitter's worst nighmare is described. Kitty's been out "Cattin' All Night", complete with a film noir soundtrack, including a finger-snapping 5/4 break. A spooky tune describes A Series of Unfortunate Events' "Master of Disguises", the evil Count Olaf ... but then Joel cranks up the volume again with a bio of Evel Knievel, a librarian's musical explanation of the Dewey Decimal System that would make Sun Records proud, and a rock and roll ode to a vine full of briars. The rock continues with a "Taxman"-like tune about Sunday morning pancakes; a jazzy story of the life of a sock monkey, featuring a very singalongable 5/4 chorus; and the album ending, organ-heavy tune dedicated to stubborn eaters.

Caithamer went all out for ACTIVATE!, from the cover's retro graphics, to the blue suede shoes inlay card, to the screen print image of a vinyl LP on the CD itself. But the album goes way beyond gimmicky kitsch: Caithamer's songwriting skills, his band's stellar musicianship, and the wholehearted effort he put into this project show that he's serious about the fun he's having. Besides being head of children's services at a branch of the Kenton County Library in Kentucky, Caithamer has developed, along with the Greater Cincinnati Television Educational Foundation, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, and Success By Six, a series of multimedia materials available for use by teachers and librarians. Check out his work at
www.libraryjam.org. Considering his impressive work across the Midwest, and the two CDs now under his belt, Joel is one of those guys we wish we had more of in our public libraries. Get ACTIVATE! and, as Joel himself said, "Play loud!". You'll find out why he should be more famous.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

***Baron Von Rumblebuss***

A tasty musical sandwich: a stack of supremely sunny powerpop songs surrounded by a couple of slices of buzzy new wave tunes, seasoned with meaningful lyrics and a dash of silliness ... mmmmm, it must be Ride the Redd Zeppelin!

North Carolina-based, Mississippi native, Tray Batson is a Music Therapist who has worked with children for years. The songs on this CD began as part of Batson's music therapy classes, presented through his New Vibrations Music company, where he specialized in developmental music for little ones, emphasizing movement, self-expression, rhythm patterns, and musical concepts. This all developed into the character of ... tah dah ... Baron Von Rumblebuss! He borrowed a couple of musicians from fellow Carolinian band the Squirrel Nut Zippers to play drums and bass guitar and created a highly entertaining collection of tunes that deal with feelings, playground crushes, dancing, and, of course, robots!

"Come On Aboard" invites the listener to join the Rumblebuss ride in an energetic fashion, while "Fancypants" keeps the toddlers dancing with a James Brown-like workout. Then the rock and roll magic begins...The Kinks-inspired "Feelings" explodes with lots of guitar and splashy cymbals, and the jaunty "I Like to Feel Cool" portrays the joyful swagger of a preschooler. "The Sun is Coming Up" celebrates the wonderfulness of life's smallest details (and check out the awesomely beautiful middle section), "Supergirl" borrows from the early Who to describe a kid's admiration of a playmate, and a slide guitar helps "Bear Bottom" paint pictures of some silly situations. The CD ends with "Rock Robots", the hit that Danny Elfman forgot to write for Oingo Boingo, and "What Goes Up Comes Down", which would feel right at home on Berlin's first album.

Batson's music is very reminiscent of the California-based Chris Von Sneidern and Illinois' Adam Schmitt, both powerpop giants in the mid-90s. The open, non-claustrophobic production on Ride the Redd Zeppelin sounds great, and the songwriting, both lyrically and musically, are far above what you would find on even the above average kids' album. Buy this one for the home, the classroom, the car, and crank it up!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

***Melanie Dill***

How to describe these CDs…a panoramic view of a great children’s television show without the visuals. Use your imagination and picture a wonderfully flowing, funny, sweet, highly entertaining stream of music, dialogue, and rhymes, and you have a good idea of what you’ll find in Melanie Dill’s series of Music for Learning CDs.

Rainbow Lemonade and its companion CD, Alphabet Parade, have been out for some time, but in anticipation of the third album in this series, I thought it was important everyone should know about these first two.

Well-played by a host of musicians and sometimes accompanied by children’s voices, the 24 songs on Rainbow Lemonade and 26 songs on Alphabet Parade are connected by spoken vignettes, multicultural hellos, and children’s musings. On Alphabet Parade the songs range from short and sweet singalongs like “Look Out the Window” to full blown productions like “The Parade!”, while Rainbow Lemonade contains swinging jazz numbers like the title tune and multipart songs like “After the Rain” (part stack-o-vocals harmonies with chamber orchestra, part punk rock mini-song, “Mud”).

Alphabet Parade, the first CD in Ms. Dill’s Music for Learning series, was released in 1998. The follow up, Rainbow Lemonade, came out in 2002, with a third title, Swingset Serenade, to appear this fall. Songs on Rainbow reference Alphabet, and I’m sure Swingset will incorporate ideas from both previous CDs, which will make owning all three that much more fun. The album artwork and layout for both albums are beautifully done, and the production on each is flawless, both great examples of self-released, indie kids’ music masterpieces.

Hot off the presses: Since the description in the first paragraph sounds suspiciously like an old time radio program, it only makes sense that Ms. Dill is at this very moment in negotiations with the University of Kansas’ KJHK 90.7 FM and National Public Radio to create a kids radio show taped live with an audience of children, and broadcast with additional songs and material interspersed throughout. Cool!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

***dog on fleas Live at Donnell !***

On Thursday, June 8, we had the privilege here at the Donnell Central Children's Room of hosting Hudson Valley's own dog on fleas, and they rawked!

They headlined our Summer Reading Club Kickoff Celebration with an afternoon of selections from their first three albums, as well as a few from their soon-to-be-released CD. The fleas added to the general rowdiness of the event by throwing in snippets of "I Believe in Miracles" and "Walkin' the Dog", which led to uncontrollable dancing and a massive upsurge in Summer Reading Club registration.

Thanks again for the show, guys!

Friday, June 09, 2006

***Parker Bent***

One of the joys of being a children’s librarian is putting together storytimes, music programs, and craft activities for kids, seeing what flies, finding out what sinks. Sometimes things are a roaring success, while other events are pretty much given a group shrug by the little ones. Parker Bent is a preschool music teacher in Beverly Hills, California, and through his daily work with kids he has honed his songwriting skills and perfected his music program presentation, and has wonderfully translated everything into his first CD, I Am Your New Music Teacher.

Your little ones can practice spelling and sounding out words with “26 Letters”, and shimmy to the Bo Diddly beat of “Froggy”, the story of an unusually named dog. They’ll also identify with the pre-school blues of the cowbell-driven “I Wanna Go Home”. Then, imagine Jack Black playing Miss Viola Swamp from Miss Nelson is Missing!, and you have the title song! Finally, the chugging Sheryl Crow-like handclapper “Count On” provides a great number-related singalong.

From the a cappella opener “AAA” to the western pastiche “Farewell”, Bent paints a sweet, funny, and rollicking picture of what one would expect to hear in his classroom. If his programs are half this fun, parents should be thankful Parker is part of their children’s early education experience. Word is he’s currently working on a full-on rock and roll album for kids, so look for great things to come from this young educator and musician.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

***Uncle Widget***

The most exclusive children’s music genre in existence? Electronic Ambient Lullaby Instrumentals. And as of this writing, Uncle Widget’s Bedtime on Mars seems to be the only CD that falls into that niche. Hey, Brian Eno for babies!

The CD’s subtitle, “Music for Children to Dream by”, aptly describes the contents, and both Uncle Widget’s website and the album liner notes describe the record’s purposes: to expose children to music from infancy, to get children interested in the relaxing and creative qualities of music, and to foster peace and creativity in sleeping children. All the music on the CD is original, except for the tiniest snippets of traditional lullabies embedded deep within a song or two.

The 11 song titles have a sort of “day in the life” order to them, beginning with “Carefree from Dawn” and “Song for the AM”, and winding down with “Bedtime on Mars”, “Until Morning”, and “Tucked In”. All wonderfully soothing, all interestingly detailed, and all professionally produced and arranged.

Besides working as a South Carolina-based youth minister, Bryan Murdaugh, Uncle Widget’s alter ego, writes praise and worship songs for Mass and paraliturgical events, and sets psalms to music for use in the Mass. Murdaugh is also the co-founder of bingbit, a liturgical and family music publishing company. Check out some of this busy guy’s works and musings at
www.spaceagewasteland.com, www.yourelevatorpitch.com, and www.trooperseven.com. Give Bedtime on Mars a listen. Relax.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

***The Hollow Trees***

These guys have definitely done their homework. Or have at least spent countless hours scouring the flea markets of southern California for out-of-print folk albums. Maybe they were lucky enough to have grown up in a household where these kinds of songs wafted through the air during childhood summers. Whatever the case, Los Angeles’ The Hollow Trees have created an album that is a throwback to the classic Pete Seeger/Burl Ives sound, and yet is amazingly fresh and original. Even hoary chestnuts like “Polly Wolly Doodle” and “Shoo Fly” totally belong to The Hollow Trees on this CD.

From the opening ring of a banjo on “Raccoon and Possum” to the sad and sonorous draw of a bow across a bass fiddle on “Buckeye Jim”, guitarist Greg McIlvaine and bassist Laura Steenberge (aka Gregory Hollow Tree and Laura Hollow Tree) treat the listener to an amazingly entertaining array of songs. Magnificently played and expertly recorded (in McIlvaine’s home studio, no less), The Hollow Trees’ self-titled debut was released last year on their own Hollow Trees Records. A friend of The Hollow Trees created the cover art, and McIlvaine designed the inner sleeve map that details the location of “Nelson”, a character described in the tune of the same name.

Need a drinking song for toddlers? Why, crank up “Jack was Every Inch a Sailor” and hoist your juice boxes! How about an extremely silly song that’s silly for the sake of silliness? Well, then, try “The Whale Song”, which almost brought a tear to the eye of a coworker, who fondly remembered the nonsensical lyrics from her childhood. Oh, and if you’re looking for the perfect preschool storytime activity song, play their original “Bunny Hop”, it’ll make you smile.

With a reverent but playful nod to the classic folk sound of the late 40s to the early 60s, The Hollow Trees use a combination of old folk tunes, sea shanties, and originals to make a modern day classic. Check it out. Turn it up. Have a hootenanny!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

***Daddy A Go Go***

With songs named “For Those About To Walk, We Salute You”, and “Pink Floyd Saves Hugh Manatee”, and a cover of a Spinal Tap tune (yes, that Spinal Tap), you know something goofy’s goin’ on. “It’s a kids’ world, yeah yeah yeah, and everybody else just gets to dance in it,” goes a line from Daddy A Go Go’s newest CD, Eat Every Bean and Pea on Your Plate. From the CD title’s pun to John Boydston’s running standup act, this is definitely a kids’ CD, and it is guaranteed to cause third graders to both giggle and air guitar.

Boydston, an Atlanta resident and Oklahoma native, has released four CDs on his own Boyd’s Tone Records and his fifth is a full-on rock and roll extravaganza, powering along with the same stumbly swagger that fellow Georgians the Black Crowes and the Georgia Satellites learned from the Stones. While grownups play spot the influences (listen for ACDC, the Rolling Stones, the Ramones, Lulu, Pink Floyd, the Replacements, the B52s, Spinal Tap, and the Beatles), kids can laugh out loud at songs about having to play on the crappiest little league team ever, brothers and sisters who bug the snot out of you, and the album-closing saga of a guy who absolutely cannot make a rhyme. With two twangy instrumentals rounding out the set, this is the perfect album for any guitar loving pre-teen.

It’s great to find a kids’ musician who rocks out unapologetically, who believes in the universal appeal of the powerchord, and who delivers his message without a smidgen of self-consciousness. Daddy A Go Go…[insert cannon fire here], we salute you.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

***Gustafer Yellowgold***

As you sit reading this review, I feel sorry for you, I truly do. For you see, friends, the minutes you waste eyeballing these pitifully mundane comments are minutes you could be digging this mindblowingly awesome DVD. This stuff is so far ahead of typical kids' entertainment, everyone else might as well give up. OK, allow me to back up and let you in on what all this proselytizing is about.

Illustrator/songwriter Morgan Taylor, originally from Dayton, Ohio, currently a Lower East Side resident, is the creator of
Gustafer Yellowgold, a character from the Sun who befriends otherwise friendless beings like a flightless pterodactyl, a crying green bee, a dragon who makes his home in a fireplace, and an eel. Gustafer Yellowgold's Wide Wild World is the soundtrack of their intertwining lives, filled with stories of friendship, loneliness, loss, death, and love. But these subjects are dealt with in such a subdued manner that you don't so much read the lyrics or hear the music, you feel them, you understand the emotions channeled through the songs, you empathize with the characters.

The eight songs on the DVD are iconographically illustrated with Morgan's simple and colorful drawings, enclosed within a square wooden frame, and lyrics to each stanza appear on the frame as each song flows by. The DVD also includes wordless versions of all the songs so you and your little ones can sing along with "I'm From the Sun", "Your Eel", "New Blue Star", and the rest of the joyous tunes and aching melodies.

After having opened for bands such as the Polyphonic Spree and Wilco, Morgan is currently performing the Gustafer Yellowgold music locally, playing live as the images from the DVD are projected onto a screen. If you live near NYC, go see the show. If you live anywhere else in the world, come see the show. If you are of this universe, buy the DVD and share it with everyone you know.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

***Saint Etienne***

One of the main points of this blog is to introduce kids and parents to different types of music suitable for children. That doesn’t mean anyone has to completely cut out all ultra mega conglomeration mainstream music, but at the very least balance it with unique, out of the ordinary styles. Having said that, here’s a little CD that is different, certainly, but nevertheless very enjoyable. There seems to be a growing trend among “Popular Music” artists to make kids’ music as a side project, and British group Saint Etienne have created an EP of songs for children as part of their newest album, Tales from Turnpike House. Up the Wooden Hills contains six songs designed for kids, the title apparently taken from the Small Faces’ song, “Up the Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire”.

The EP opener, “You Can Count on Me”, counts from one to ten in English, French, and Spanish, and sounds a little like Stereolab retooled for the dancefloor, or maybe a chilled out Madonna track. At 59 seconds, “Barnyard Brouhaha”, a sort of electronic “Turkey In the Straw”, seems ready made for use as an instrumental intro to a kids’ show. The rollicking “Let’s Build a Zoo”, with its neo-“Swinging England” music and list of alliterations like “Charlie chose a chimpanzee”, “Rachel rode a rhino”, and “Peter picked a penguin”, is sure to be a hit with your Toddler Time dancers.

After the nonsense lyrics and electro-rockabilly blues of “Excitation”, “Bedfordshire” begins with a father convincing his small son to turn off the TV for a while and take an imaginary trip to the wooden hills of Bedfordshire, their journey represented by a wordless soundtrack akin to a Brian Wilson Smile-era soundscape. Finally, a chamber orchestra and the soothing voice of lead singer Sarah Cracknell bring the day to a close with “Night Owl”.

As far as I can tell, Up the Wooden Hills is only available in combination with Tales from Turnpike House, and as a limited edition, at that. But rumor is Saint Etienne are working on a full-fledged children’s music project for future release, so this EP may become part of that at some point. But until then, get Tales and Wooden Hills, enjoy both, and encourage Saint Etienne to make more great music for kids!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

***Professor Presley***

I’ll have to admit, when I first saw the cover of this CD and read the subtitle, “A Punk Rock-N-Roll Romp Through U.S. History”, I was very skeptical. But, man-o-man, this is an amazing album! Bill Reynolds, aka Professor Presley, has used classic punk chord changes, song structures, and lyrical immediacy to tell the story of America’s history from Colonial settlement to the Reconstruction era. And the damn thing rocks!

As a Middle School Social Studies teacher in Encinitas, California, Reynolds took it upon himself to create materials that would appeal to his students, thus was born Professor Presley: History Rocks. With the musical help of Mike Kamoo and the vocal talents of several bands from Southern California, including Lucy's Fur Coat, The Stereotypes, Static Halo, Rookie Card, Jameson's Gypsies, and Jersey Thursday, Reynolds takes 8th Graders on a tour of significant events in the history of the United States.

Documents that were the foundation of our political system, the idealistic differences between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, the War of 1812, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and the causes of the Civil War, are all given straightforward, literal descriptions and explanations. And what better music to be the backdrop of such inflammatory, thought-provoking subjects? It totally works, and you can almost see our founding fathers, if they had possessed the technology, grinding out a punk rock song about the pros and cons of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican Parties.

Another great aspect of Reynolds’ project is his Teacher’s Tool Kit, which includes two CDs and tons of materials to use in the classroom. So educators, take note! This one is a winner, and word is Professor Presley is currently working on World History Rocks and Science Rocks as we speak.

And check out the old school pics of the Minutemen in the contest area!

Saturday, April 29, 2006

***Lunch Money***

It’s crazy how much fun you can have with just a guitar, a bass, brushed drums, and voices! Just ask Lunch Money, a three piece from West Columbia, South Carolina, whose debut kids’ album, Silly Reflection, came out in 2004 on their Squirrel Mechanic Records label. They’re enjoying themselves so much, in fact, you can hear the smile in lead singer Molly Ledford’s voice.

Oh, the memories that accumulate on a “Tricycle” when it’s passed down from family member to family member: a dent in the fender, purple sparkle streamers, a Snoopy sticker and a “Keep On Truckin’” license plate. Here comes the “Caboose”, a finger snappin’, “Fever”-inspired ode to the last car on the train. And rainy days are cool because you get to twirl your “Umbrella” and watch everyone act like Gene Kelly.

“Roller Coaster” dares you to put your ride ticket where your mouth is, quit hanging out by the tea cups, and get on board! Yes, daddy-o, “We Have Rhythm”, from birth, it seems, where we learned it from our own heartbeat. “Got To Watch Out” made me think of one of those pastoral songs Ray Davies wrote for the Kinks in the mid- to late-60’s. And the best reason to “Want a Dog”? Well, you can’t walk a hamster down the street!

Low key, cheerful, lyrically inventive, funny: Silly Reflection is a great debut from Lunch Money, and hopefully a reflection of more silliness to come (wow, that was bad)!

Kudos to drummer Jay Barry for his CD package design. The layout and graphics are first class!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

***Jamie Barnett***

Please, _______ (you can fill in the blank with whichever corporation-created children’s music creature or group you want), could you make just one CD with at least a tenth the sincerity of Jamie Barnett?!? On his newest album, Just Look At You, check out Jamie’s playful, inventive lyrics; his deep, ringing acoustic guitar; his beautifully arranged tunes – like Leo Kottke without the fretboard gymnastics, and John Prine without the piss and vinegar.

Murrieta, California, educator Jamie Barnett sings songs about sledding, eating pancakes, folding clothes, hanging out with Dad as he visits various members of the extended family, all under the umbrella philosophy of living life in the moment, appreciating even the smallest events and tiniest slices of time we have together.

Feeling down? A little blue? That’s ok, “My Laughter” reminds us that our smiles are always right under our noses, and that if we just “Step Outside” every once in a while, we will notice the beautiful world all around us. One of the best tunes is “Sun Shines”, a serene song on which Jamie’s niece Alyssa sings. You can’t even call this song a “lullabye”; it’s more like a mantra, a Zen way of looking at life.

Both the title track and “Big Brown Eyes” are great examples of Jamie’s living-life-in-the-now immediacy, while “381 Days” gives kids the facts about the Montgomery bus boycott and encourages them to ask questions about our history and the choices we made.

Just Look At You is a very personal CD, from the family photos to the singing help to the philosophies of life. A beautiful album with a beautiful message.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

***Frances England***

Sometimes spaces between notes are as powerful as the music itself. Frances England has created a powerfully simple, simply powerful collection of songs for her debut album, Fascinating Creatures. Other than Ms. England’s voice, all you’ll hear are strummed guitars, maracas, the occasional clave, and a rare visit from a drum set. Ghostly, distant notes float across many of the songs, along with faint, whispery backing vocals. If Daniel Lanois produced Sam Phillips, the result might sound a little like Fascinating Creatures, but to be honest this CD is so wonderfully unique, it’s hard to properly describe.

Suburban childhood activities abound: planting a little garden; painting; riding a tricycle; wondering where trains, planes and boats go when they leave our sight; reading favorite books; eating pancakes.

The highlight is the title track, a song that should be on everyone’s best-of-2006 list. Dreamy, unadorned, cosmic…one can’t say enough about this song. The inadvertently audible hum of a guitar amp and the imperfect tempo make the tune even more beautiful. The buzzy chorus of “Busy As a Bee” will make a great Toddler Time sing along, and on “Charlie Parker” you get a who’s who of bebop, plus the scat chorus is impossible not to sing along with.

At about 29 minutes, Fascinating Creatures is a short but quietly powerful little CD. If you’re alone, listen to the album on your headphones while you lie on your back in the middle of a grassy field. If you’re hanging out with your kid, play this record while you color together or plant seedlings in an old egg carton. This is a truly indie-rock kids’ album, and a fantastic one at that. Oh, and be sure to check out Ms. England’s great cover artwork!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

***The RTTs***

Who is the best bar band in the world? Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band? Elvis Costello’s Attractions? Neil Young’s Crazy Horse? That debate will go on forever. The best (juice & snack) bar band in the U.S.A.? The RTTs! That’s right boys and girls, rock and roll for the whole family!

The RTTs, aka the Rhodes Tavern Troubadours of Washington, DC, released their rockabilly-flavored contribution to the world of children’s music, Turn It Up, Mommy! back in late 2003. Mix together the retro rock of Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds’ super group Rockpile, the countrypolitan twang of Rodney Crowell, and some tasty guitar licks a la Pete Anderson, Dwight Yoakam’s guitarist, and you have a loose estimation of the RTTs sound.

The set kicks off with “Snack Time”, in which a kid wonders aloud, “Who was the genius that came up with juice boxes, string cheese, and Goldfish?” Next, you can hear the swampy lope of Creedence Clearwater Revival in “Learning My Letters”, a tune that details the frustration of deciphering the 104 squiggles that make up the alphabet, if you count upper- AND lower-case AND cursive letters. And no, “Big Train” is not yet another “choo choo whoo whoo” kids’ song. It is, in fact, about Walter Johnson, pitcher extraordinaire for the old Washington Senators!

Dad gets specific mentions in the songs “Sherpa”, “My New Hero”, and “April 14th”. “A Sherpa”, explains Dad, “carries lots of luggage across the Himalayas”, which is the way he feels sometimes when he packs for a trip to the park. But Dad is a hero because he can swim well, he’s honest, and he can do the Boogaloo. And the 14th of April makes Dad say unrepeatable words, notices the kid. Mom is on both ends of the volume spectrum with “Turn It Up, Mommy!”, a full out rocker that makes digs at the Wiggles, Raffi, and Barney all in one breath; and “Thank You Mommy”, a soothing final song that pays tribute to Moms (and wives) everywhere.

These guys have been at it for a long time, so they have the sound down, the production is clean and bright, and their musicianship is stellar. Is it a kids’ CD? Is it meant for adults? Anyone and everyone in the family will dig this music, and that’s the point.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

***dog on fleas***

It's a shame, really, how much incredible talent goes unnoticed nowadays. Well, not so much unnoticed, but crushed into oblivion by the machine of mediocrity that calls itself "family entertainment". Hey, that's where I come in!

From the heart of Hudson Valley come dog on fleas, a musical ensemble based in Rosendale, New York, with their amazing new CD, Cranberry Sauce Flotilla. Mandolins and fiddles, a big booming upright bass, guitars and banjos, trombones and tubas, a barrelhouse piano, stacks of harmonies...Check out their original tune "The Farmer Is", and their cover of Woody Guthrie's "Bling-Blang", and you would swear you were at Big Pink listening to The Band lay down some tracks. In fact, throughout the whole CD you get the feeling that you've come across a New Orleans parlor band playing a kids' birthday party on a riverboat chugging up the Mississippi River. Except better.

Cranberry is unforgettable for several reasons: the production, the song selection, and the sincerity of the performance. The secret is that the album was recorded with the group performing around a single microphone (sometimes more) in the living room of band leader Dean Jones. Believe me, the fewer microphones you use, the harder it is to balance and mix the sound. But they've done a beautiful job, sounding as if you're hanging out on the couch, listening to the band have fun. A group who have a similar approach to recording and soundscape are North Carolina's Squirrel Nut Zippers, whose song "Hell" you might have heard on the reality series Family Plots.

Originals, covers, and old traditional tunes make up the play list on Cranberry. Bandmember John Hughes' "Happy" may be the most sincere, joyful proclamation of parental glee you will ever hear. No great big hugs from purple dinosaurs, or schmaltzy butterfly kisses here. Debbie Lan takes over vocals on the traditional "Twistification", Hoagy Carmichael's "Lazy Bones", and bandmember David Levine's sweet, sweet "Little Bird". And just try not to sing and dance along to the traditional "Weevily Wheat" or Dean Jones' own "Cranberry Sauce Flotilla" (you'll have to listen to the CD to decode the meaning of the title track's lyrics).

The band are clearly having a great time on Cranberry, and sometimes that means as much to the listener as a group's musical prowess or knowledge of folk tunes. Parents, and especially children, deserve a heartfelt performance from any music they bring into their homes, and dog on fleas certainly deliver on this one.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

***Teacher and the Rockbots***

Finally, kids’ music for the upper-elementary crew! Chris Bihuniak and Bryan Mace, aka Teacher and the Rockbots, are a duo from Kansas who create and produce educational music and materials under their umbrella corporation, Power Arts Company, Inc. They have produced three CDs so far, Science, America, and Multiplication, with a fourth, World, to come very soon. The theme of each CD is explored with informational, creative, and amusing songs that kids in 3rd- through 5th- Grades will love. Teachers in particular will enjoy the fact that their students will actually be learning about the digestive system or the branches of government without knowing they’re learning!

OK class, get out your science CD! Now, before you wrinkle your nose and say, "Songs about science? Booorrrring!", put this disc in your player and crank it up. And no, the "Rockbots" don't play Casio keyboards and Roland drum machines. Chris and Bryan have put forth the effort to rock on real instruments, and to insure that each song will lyrically hold the interest of a classroom full of nine-year-olds. On their Science CD they cover animal class, liquid measurement, simple machines, and the human body, among other things.

The other three CDs will be reviewed soon, but for now tell your local school board to get on the Rockbot wagon!

Friday, March 17, 2006

***They Might Be Giants***

Another duo from Brooklyn you might have heard of...that's right, our beloved alternateen heroes They Might Be Giants
have made the foray into children's music! And a wonderful job they've done, I must say.

Over the course of listening to No!, we find out that "The Edison Museum" is useful as both an historical site and a creepy place to be sent if you're naughty, and that "John Lee Supertaster"'s diet has to be extra bland to accommodate his sensitive tastebuds. The Appalachian acapella story-song is updated with "I Am Not Your Broom", and "Clap Your Hands" is probably the greatest Toddler Time singalong song that Wilson Pickett never made.

The most awesome thing about this album is that the songs can pretty much be interchanged with songs from their best TMBG "adult" albums. A world controlled by kid-created robots, the mystery of balloon manufacturing, making sure to cross the street at the corner: yes, TMBG explore the imagination of a child without insulting the kid or annoying the parent. What other children's album ends with a fist-pumping anthem to the pros of beddybyetime?