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)