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?

***The Quiet Ones***

Brooklyn's The Quiet Ones released their brilliant debut CD, Make Some Noise, in 2005 on their own Not Big Records. Andy Ure and Chris Anderson have created an album that is fantastic and fantastical, sweet and imaginative, full of instantly memorable tunes. Think very early Pink Floyd if they had the musical sensibilities of Sloan, and without quite so much lysergic acid diethylamide.

Side one of Make Some Noise (OK, OK...the first six songs, how's that?) could be any other band's greatest hits album. The CD, a quiet affair despite the title, kicks off with a couple of acoustic songs, but then the boys turn it up. Need a rockin' superhero anthem? Try "Ultrafoot". Want a Dadaist tune about fruit? There's "Magic Banana" (pronounced with a British accent, it's even better). Hey, "I Remember Purple" is destined to be the "Yesterday" for children...I'm not kidding.

The album ends with a nod to the Who's "A Quick One, While He's Away", by telling the epic story of a kid who, dissatisfied with the drink choices in his fridge, invents a dairy soda called "Fizzy Milk", only to bemoan his drinking the concoction in the awesomely sorrowful coda. Kids should guard their copies of this CD, because the grownups will want to sneak many, many listens.