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.