Friday, December 29, 2006

Kids Make the Darnedest Audience

I've already posted about how I got into doing kids' music, and I mentioned in that post that I would write about kids as an audience at some point. Well, I suppose that now is "some point", so here goes...

When I started doing kids music I thought it would be pretty easy and almost effortless to engage them in live performances. When I would play shows for adults at coffeeshops and they would bring their kids, I would play a song or two for the kids... something I happened to know already like "Scooby Doo" or "If I Only Had a Brain"... and they would usually respond very well, with big smiles and big laughs. It was their reaction which turned out to be a big part of the impetus for me to do music just for kids.

But in retrospect, its no wonder they responded so well to that, because otherwise at those coffeehouse gigs I'd been playing original singer/songwriter acoustic pop songs about relationships or drug addiction or media satire or whatever... stuff their parents could appreciate, but not them. And the covers I did were things like John Lennon, Leonard Cohen and Pink Floyd (and not the kid-friendly Pink Floyd songs... wink). So it's no wonder that kids would really perk up and have a big reaction when I would take a few minutes to play a couple of silly tunes that they were familiar with and focus my attention directly towards them.

What I quickly found out once I started doing a few shows specifically for kids is that they have a different expectation entirely when they know that they are the focus of the entertainment, and you may not even keep their attention for five minutes if you're not really engaging them in some way. After I had listened to all of the kids' music CDs from the Buffalo libraries when I was first getting into doing kids' music, I learned a number of the songs that I really liked to form a set list for my first few shows at day cares. I figured, these songs are so incredibly charming that any group of kids will just melt and giggle and purr with joy as I sing them. What a piece of cake!

Well, I found that there's sometimes a big difference between what I might find incredibly charming in a kids' song, what a kid might find incredibly charming when listening to a CD, and what a kid might find incredibly charming during a live show. Merely singing what would seem to be an enjoyable kids' song to a group of kids doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to respond to it or want to pay attention to it.

In that sense, an audience of kids isn't all that different from adults... In a live situation, they often need something a little bit beyond what is merely just a song. A good song can be heard and enjoyed just fine on the CD player at home. But a live performance is expected to be something a little more than that. For artists whose music you are already familiar with, sure, you might enjoy just seeing them in person singing the songs you love... although the odds are that if you've heard of someone's music, they are probably also very good performers, as there are very few "recording artist only" success stories in the music business.

I'm not at all suggesting that an audience (kids or adults) needs video screens or costume characters or giant inflatables or a stage full of dancers or lasers or fog machines or super energetic stage antics or non-stop participation or any of that stuff... Certainly, there are many examples of people who are great about performing with just a guitar or piano and their voice (or even just the instrument in some cases), and bands like The Grateful Dead who pretty much just stood there and played their songs, without even introducing them.

But most audiences, and I think especially kids audiences, need something else as part of the live performances. And that can be as simple as the words or stories you say to set up the song, or a certain kind of way that you bop your head while you sing, or even just the way you look or dress (not to take away from his music at all, but I think Dan Zanes has an instant advantage with an audience of kids because he just looks so cool in a very unique way, so even his appearance is entertaining for kids). Sometimes it's a matter of pacing the songs right... A theater director that I worked with in Buffalo told me that she tries to direct shows with a push-and-pull or roller coaster feel to them, to keep the audience's perception of their experience in constant motion.

To Bounce or Not to Bounce

One thing that I think sets a kids audience apart is a particular need for participation. Yes, older audiences like to clap and sing along and hold up lighters and sway their arms and do "the wave" and mosh and crowd surf and all that, and in some cases it is those shared moments among the audience that really make the concert experience special, as in a U2 show where Bono can stop singing entirely and the whole crowd fills in perfectly for him. But most adult concerts don't absolutely need participation to be enjoyed by their audience, whereas kids' concerts usually do need at least some participation, if not quite a lot. Most kids have a strong desire to be an active part of whatever is going on, and want to have a lot of fun, and want to feel like they are helping in some way.

I have to say "most kids", because one thing I had to learn is that not every kid wants to participate at a live concert, and that's okay. I would have thought that surely every kid would want to "Bounce and Flap and Twist" or "Dance Like An Animal", right? It used to bother me if I ever saw a kid at one of my shows who wasn't participating. And then I met Alex.

Alex was a little boy who came with his mother to a show in Seattle. Try as I might, I just could not get Alex to participate with anything during the show. It was a smaller audience at a library, and so he really stood out (or sat out, I should say) among the other kids who were dancing and responding to everything, and I remembered him very well because once I learned his name I kept trying to coax him to participate ("Come on, Alex!"), to no avail... And then a couple weeks later I was playing another concert near Seattle and while I was setting up I noticed that Alex had joined the audience. I went out to say "hi" and his father said something like, "Alex loved your show so much that he had to come back again. He's been listening to your songs on your website and watching the videos. He's your biggest fan!"

The impact of that was very powerful, and I realized that hey, whaddya know, kids are different. And just because a certain kid may not feel comfortable acting silly like the other kids, it doesn't mean that they aren't having fun and enjoying the show in their own way. One of my nieces is a perfect example of that kind of thing... super shy and reserved at my concerts, but at home she's bouncing off the walls and singing my songs at the top of her lungs. So now when I'm doing concerts I encourage all of the kids to participate, and if I see a kid who isn't then I might make one gesture for them to participate (because some kids do need that personal encouragement to get them going), but if they don't respond to that then I don't worry about it.

Drawing the Line in the Sand/Floor/Grass

Another thing I learned early on is that kids need boundaries and expectations, and that if you provide them ahead of time, they are really great about respecting them. I recall an early show where I was singing a song without my guitar, and a sneaky kid kept creeping around the side of me to go and mess with my guitar on its stand. I kept saying, "No no no", and gently shooing him away, but he kept returning. I observed other seasoned kids' performers like Kenn Nesbitt and Glenn Colton who did such a great job with crowd control, and tried to figure out what they were doing that I wasn't. My wife pointed out that it's important that I be on top of that kind of thing and make it clear the first time it happens that it's not acceptable, or better yet, set that expectation from the beginning.

I hated to seem at all like "the bad guy" when I'm supposed to be the one initiating a fun experience for the kids. But I learned that if we set the rule ahead of time that they cannot come up past a certain point (I have my stage manager, Zeke, tell them that in a fun way before he introduces me), then it is just a matter of my enforcing that, should any kid try to test that boundary. And I've found that they rarely do try to test that boundary if it has already been set. Of course, you'll get the Wandering Infant now and then, who couldn't understand that rule and can be very hard to deflect away from the stage area without their parents help. But by and large, kids are great at respecting the expectations they've been given for their behavior during the show.

We Interrupt this Show for an Important Announcement...

One thing about kids audiences is that you never know when you're going to get unexpected interruptions. Actually, they wouldn't be unexpected interruptions if you knew when they were going to happen. But anyway... Some kids are very outgoing and really want you to know what's going on with them, and so if you sing a song that mentions a dog you might have a kid who comes up during that song yelling, "I have a dog named Cowgirl! I have a dog named Cowgirl!" And about the only thing you can do is to either ignore them or acknowledge them. If possible, acknowledging them is usually better because that's what they really want at that point, to know that you heard them and recognize them. So I may have to try hard to squeeze into the song, "That's great! You have a dog named Cowgirl. How cool!"

And one thing to watch out for is that there may be a smarty-pants among the older range of kids who must announce as loudly as possible that he's aware of something that the other kids aren't. For example, at a recent show I played "There's a Monster in My House", and my set-up for that song is to say that I'm going to tell the kids a story next, and you can tell stories with songs, and would they like to hear kind of a scary story, etc. But this particular time I forgot to say the part that you can tell a story with a song. And wouldn't you know it, there was a kid who starts yelling, several times during the song, "This isn't a story! It's a song!" Arrrrrgggghhhh. I kept looking for an opportunity when I could quickly blurt out, "Youcantellastorywithasong!" But I couldn't get it in there smoothly, and I knew that it was my fault for missing the crucial part of the setup.

Of course, most times it wouldn't matter anyway, since the kids would just listen and follow along as expected, but I just happened to have that one smarty-pants kid there that time, and it was the wrong time to give him that opportunity. Usually, it's easy enough to do a quick "shh" for any kids who may be saying something during a song, and so again, it goes back to the idea that kids are great with respecting your expectations when they are aware of them.

Too cute.

Of course, the cuteness factor makes everything so great when performing for kids. They may disrupt a little bit on rare occasions or make a smarty-pants comment, but time and again they will say and do the sweetest things, both during the show and afterwards.

At one of the very first kids' shows I played at a day care in Buffalo, where the show was very much a learning experience for me in many respects, as described above, there was a little girl who came up afterward and said, "Can you come back tomorrow and play?" And it was fun to watch another girl who had initially told me she only liked magicians, and not music, ending up in the front row and practically crawling up my leg by the end of the first song. Nearly every show since has had some kind of cute comment or reaction from the kids, and that is one of the things that is particularly gratifying about live performances for children. Kids appreciation can be so incredibly enthusiastic and jubilant and they can help you to feel the joy that they are feeling from the music and from the fun that they are having.

And that's another thing that is important with any audience, but especially with kids... that your feeling of enjoying what you do comes across to them, because that good feeling can bounce back and forth between the performer and the audience and magnify the enjoyment for all.
And I think that with a kids audience, it's important not to condescend to them in the way you address them, or you might be in trouble, especially with the older kids. I gear the tone of what I say and the bulk of my material towards older kids, because younger kids will still appreciate a lot of that, but it doesn't work nearly as well the other way around. The only exception would be if the audience is entirely comprised of preschoolers, in which case my "inner Barney" might come out just a little bit.

But I think it's also super important to connect with kids on their level and celebrate their "kid-ness". Instead of being an adult performing for kids, I try in some ways to be a kid performing for kids. Part of that is playing around with them with their particular sense of humor (which is much more varied and sophisticated than I was originally aware of) and their innate sense of silliness. It's great to try to expose kids to "the arts" and a variety of different musical approaches, but it helps if it's fun for them while they're learning. As Christopher Noxon reported in his article for the Fids and Kamily blog, a parent at a kids' concert he went to said: "Stop squirming, Montana... Listen, it's a sea shanty. Can you say 'sea shanty'?"
There's only so much that kids can appreciate that isn't fun in some way for them. It doesn't matter so much if that guy in the band is playing a rare dulcimer... that will probably only interest a kid for a half a second. The song and the performance has to connect with them in a fun way.

And that's probably the bottom line for kids as an audience... fun. If someone hasn't updated Cyndi Lauper's song to say "Kids just wanna have fun", then I'm sure that's in the works. Adults go to concerts and can hear the blues or rock epics or classical symphonies or punk anthems and feel things like sadness and romance and power and grandeur and loss and hope and anger. Certainly, kids can pick up on and explore some of those emotions in their own ways, but when they are part of something that is supposed to be an entertaining event for them, there better be something fun involved throughout, because that's what most kids will want to take from the experience. There's plenty of time for kids to grow up and listen to jaded bands lifelessly playing emo in some dank club. But kids are only young once, and may never have the same level of enthusiasm and wonder for the world around them, so I say let them express that and enjoy that while they still can.

I look forward to continuing my own education and experience with entertaining audiences of kids in the coming year, and I wish you all a very happy and healthy 2007! Thank you so much for stopping by.

Saturday, December 23, 2006


Maisy is a lovable little mouse (well, actually, she's rather large for a mouse) created by Lucy Cousins as a book series that eventually became an animated show. I had never heard of her before, but my wife noticed one of the Maisy videos at the library and thought it might be good for our daughter, Becca, who was two at the time. To say that Becca took to Maisy right away would be an understatement... She instantly loved everything about Maisy and her world, and her sister Evee has followed suit as she's grown up. It was a big thrill for them to meet Maisy in person at a bookstore earlier this year. And I've become a fan, too. The content of the shows is clearly directed at young kids, though, so for me, the particular hook that keeps me enjoying the repeated viewings are the highly comical sound effects provided by The Umbilical Brothers (their voicings for Charley the crocodile are hilarious), and in particular the great music.

The music for the Maisy videos was produced by Kick Production, which is a group of composers who have made music for several different animated shows including Sitting Ducks and The Koala Brothers.
Their Maisy songs remind me of the Blues Brothers joke where Elwood asks the lady at the hick bar what kind of music they play at their establishment, and she answers, "Oh, we got both kinds... country and western." Only instead of country and western, in this case "both kinds" means reggae and ska. I love reggae and ska, and the generally bouncy and happy feel of those styles seems a perfect fit for kids, so it's no wonder this show and its music has been a big hit for our family.

The Maisy material includes several original songs as well as reggae/ska treatments of classic kid songs like "If You're Happy and You Know It", "Wheels on the Bus" and "Row Row Row Your Boat". I really love the catchy melodies and grooves of the originals like "Itty Bitty Bug Song", "Poor Poor Panda", "Up Up Down Down", "
Walk Along Charley", "Elastic", "It Wouldn't Go", "Maisy Wore a Red Dress" and the theme song. One time when a Maisy video was on, I picked up my guitar and wanted to learn the chords to some of the songs so I could sing them together with my girls. I was amazed to discover that every one of the songs was completely based around I-IV-V chords, and I think they were all in the same key, even. That may have been intentional, to keep the sound simple and consistent for little ears, but it's always cool to realize how much variety can be found within the same simple chord changes, and also within the same particular musical genre. With some bands or singer/songwriters, a very limited sound with similar chord changes on all songs would start to make them all sound the same and I would lose interest pretty quickly, but Kick Production does a really great job giving each of these songs its own spirit and arranging them vibrantly and creatively. In an instant you know when you hear one of the Maisy songs, but you also know each of them distinctively.

Unfortunately, the only place I can point you to hear something from Maisy is to one of these preview pages (RealAudio - WMA) for the Best of Nick Jr. compilation CD, which includes a sample from the Maisy theme song. The show is currently on Noggin, so if you have that channel, definitely check it out and listen for the musical interludes. I don't believe they have any plans to release a CD with all of the Maisy songs collected together, but if they did I would certainly buy it in a heartbeat.

Maisy Noggin page

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Christmas Music

The Lovely Mrs. Davis is one of the main kids' music bloggers to emerge over the past year or so, and she also covers other subjects with great wit and style. She has been having several kids' musicians and bloggers doing guest posts for her site about their favorite Christmas music, and my post was added there today. Click here to read that.

On a completely unrelated note... I'm sorry it's been so long since I've had a new article posted. I've been trying to keep a schedule of posting something at least once a week since being home more over the fall and winter. I'm not going to say that I've been too busy, because I'm pretty much in a perpetual state of "too busy", so that's not really a valid excuse. What I think it is, though, is that I've been getting pretty swamped with people sending in new CDs for me to check out. I'm starting to appreciate how Stefan and Amy and others must get overwhelmed sometimes with everything they receive. I'm grateful to be getting what I am, especially as
there's a lot of really cool kids' music out there... but the problem is that when I get something new I often want to check it out as soon as I can, and so that means that the last thing I was listening to gets pulled out of the CD player. It's kind of been going on like that for the past week or two. I usually want to listen to something in particular at least two or three times before I feel ready to write about it, and that just isn't happening lately. I actually have a back list of kids' artists who I've been meaning to feature here at some point, whose music I'm already aware of, so I should probably just post about one of them. But again, this new music I'm getting is what I'm immersing myself in at the moment, so it's making it hard to focus on anything from that list right now.

Anyway, I hope to be getting to a post about The Hipwaders sometime soon, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, proceed to rock on and such...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Randy Kaplan

Randy Kaplan is a singer/songwriter/performer from Brooklyn. He has released several albums for adults but just released his first album specifically for kids called Five Cent Piece.

Randy has one of the most interesting voices I've ever heard, right up there with Justin Roberts for its peculiar quality. ("Peculiar" in both cases meaning distinct and special, not freaky or weird.) He shares some of the nasal twang as singers like Michael Stipe and Arlo Guthrie, and there's also just a bit of grit in there, as if his vocal chords forgot to shake their shoes out after a day at the beach. Most significantly, Randy's voice is incredibly easy-going and welcoming, and you feel like you're sitting next to an old friend on an old couch and he's playing a new tune for you and you know you're already going to be enthralled with it the first time you hear it because, ya know, it's your good friend, Randy.

That's an important quality to have for this material, because Randy is very much in the Arlo Guthrie vein of story-telling through songs, and if he wasn't such a friendly character then some of the songs with a lot of talking might get tiresome. But my kids and I love this CD and are happy to let Randy spin his yarns over and over and knit us up into a warm little mitten.

Much of the CD consists of new renditions of classic songs like "We're in the Same Boat, Brother", "I'm a Little Dinosaur", "Freight Train", "Kids" (from Bye Bye Birdie) and "You Are My Sunshine". All are done in a sweet folky style with smooth fingerstyle guitar as the backbone, and different tracks include some nice accompaniment including trombone, mandolin, violin and accordian. "Over the Rainbow" is one of those songs like "Unchained Melody" or "O Holy Night", where I thought it would need a particularly virtuoso vocalist to pull it off, but Randy's version is one of the most beautiful I've ever heard. The earthy twang of his voice along with the gently rolling guitar may not be in perfect pitch or perfect intonation, and yet it is so "just right" in every deeply soulful way that really matters. It doesn't hurt that the song is so great to begin with, but Randy has made this version truly special.

Randy also does a very funny version of "You Can't Always Get What You Want", where he replaces the Stones' verses with another Arlo styled story about a kid who wants to play all day at the playground and doesn't want to get dressed into his pajamas after his bath and wants to eat nothing but ice cream and... well... you know how the chorus goes. In the third chorus, Randy goes off and provides voices for different family members and a strange menagerie of pets who all sing along on the title phrase. This takes what David Grover and his band did so well with "Where's My Pajamas" and one-ups it. I was laughing out loud when he got to the snake and the horse and the cow. And I love his little interjections between the chorus lines like, "Adapt this as your first mantra!" and "Use it preemptively!" Good advice, indeed. The track is nearly ten minutes long, which might be a bit much for some, but I enjoyed it all. This song also shows off Randy's ability to do funny voices and to be an engaging goof, which is evident on other tracks as well.

Somewhat ironically, the cover song that didn't work for me that well was Randy's take on Arlo Guthrie's "The Motorcycle Song", which kind of felt a bit flat compared to the original, and misses the Arlo witticism of lines like, "Luckily, I didn't go into the mountain... I went over the cliff." I suppose that Randy is so good with his Arlo approach and his sense of humor on other songs that the expectation was particularly high for this.

Randy also offers four original tracks. They're all kind of odd in their own way, which is good. (Again with 'peculiar' meaning special and unique.) I especially liked the first original, which is a song about a shark who invades Randy's bathtub and orders him to "Shampoo me!" I love the phrasing when he sings the title, with his high chirp on the "poo" and the low growl on "me", and the second verse in particular is very funny as the shark counters Randy's complaint about the shark's lack of hair by telling him, "You don't have any, either," and pointing out that he still has a bottle of shampoo nearby, regardless. "Mosquito Song" is a lowdown bluesy number about Randy trying to flick a mosquito away from him. "Roaches" is very pleasant musically, but a bit disturbing as it describes an apartment where roaches are everywhere, even on the bookshelf reading Kafka (of course). The song ends with the roaches singing in a way that sounds almost like a glass bottle slide on an acoustic guitar. "Mostly Yellow" is a sad ballad about how Big Bird, with his Fruit Loop ankles, has never flown anywhere, so he's "mostly yellow, but just a little blue". (Randy might need to update his Sesame Street viewing, though, as he refers to Snuffy as being invisible, which of course is not the case.)

It's the little details during his song commentary, the warm and welcoming feeling of the music, and the instantly engaging and friendly nature of Randy's voice and character that makes this such a winning recording. I really enjoy listening to this, and look forward to hearing more music from Randy.

Randy Kaplan website

Eric's review of Randy's 2008 release, Loquat Rooftop

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Goodbye to Greg Wiggle

The big news in the kids' music world right now is that Greg Page, aka "the yellow Wiggle", is retiring from The Wiggles due to health reasons. Here is a video with him explaining why he's retiring and passing the yellow shirt off to his replacement, Sam. Apparently, Greg has a rare heart condition where blood doesn't flow enough when he is active, which would certainly make it impossible to continue as a Wiggle, what with all of the singing and touring and, of course... wiggling.

After we watched that video with our 4 year-old daughter, Becca (a lifelong Wiggle fan), she said she wanted to draw a picture on the Paint program of Greg Wiggle with a Band-Aid over his heart. We'll send that picture on to him, along with our best wishes for his health and our thanks for all he's done with the group.

I've posted here before about how I feel about The Wiggles, but I would like to add a couple of thoughts that weren't mentioned in that article...

First of all, I've been thinking that one reason why some people might be so quick to dismiss The Wiggles is if they have only glimpsed some of their Disney channel shows. Disney tends to repeat the same few shows over and over. I don't think those shows are the best representation of what The Wiggles do to begin with, and especially not if you only see the same songs and segments all the time. But if you check out some of their stand-alone video releases and CDs, there really are many great songs of a wide variety represented. I don't that think anybody else... anybody else... has offered anything comparable to the body of quality music for the younger range of kids (1-5) as The Wiggles have. And as Devon from the Head, Shoulders, Knees and all that blog points out in this post, it's nice that The Wiggles unabashedly make music with just kids in mind.

Also, as I keep reading various articles about the current wave of kids' music emerging in such a big way, with virtually every one of them making some reference to The Wiggles in the sense that the new music coming out is so much cooler and better than theirs and being such a great alternative to them, I can't help but wonder... would there even be any kind of "kids' music explosion" if it weren't for The Wiggles and their huge success? They got millions of parents around the world buying kids' music CDs and videos, which I think had waned quite a bit since Raffi sort of faded away for a while there. Once somebody opens the door to something in the public consciousness, then the public is more aware of that thing in general, and I think that's one of the reasons why there is more attention on kids' music in general right now. I suspect that many others who are having success in the kids' genre now wouldn't have the same visibility if The Wiggles hadn't made such a big splash for the general idea of "kids' music".

And The Wiggles put the idea of creating new and original kids' music with a variety of sounds and styles on the map in a huge way.
Like it was when The Beatles became so big, I imagine that other artists wanted to get in on that action and do the same kind of thing once they saw how huge The Wiggles had become. The Beatles made the idea of being a musician fun and exciting for a whole new wave of up-and-coming musicians in the 60's, and I think The Wiggles have done the same thing for kids' musicians. And as it was in the wake of The Beatles, when we had so much other great music coming out after them, so it is with The Wiggles with a lot of other great kids' music being produced now. But The Beatles were always still very well respected for their huge contribution to their musical genre, and so should The Wiggles be respected for what they've done.

But often they're not respected at all... and worse yet, they're somehow made to seem like the embodiment of everything that good kids' music shouldn't be. What a crock that is. When I hear people in the kids' music industry dismissing or pooh-poohing The Wiggles, it reminds me of the maples in the great Rush parable "The Trees". Why on Earth other people producing kids' music or writing about kids' music would denigrate The Wiggles is really beyond me. They are incredibly talented songwriters, performers and musicians and have produced a huge body of work that kids really love.

Anyway, I'm really glad that Greg will likely be alright, and I wish him and The Wiggles the very best as they continue on.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Eric Herman Interview

One thing I forgot to mention in my recent post about Yosi was that he also has a kids' music blog. His latest post is an interview with a guy named Eric Herman. Along with the interview is a brand new Eric Herman collectible card, part of which is to the right, for all of you fervent players of the Eric Herman:The Gathering card game. To see the whole card and read the interview, click here.

Thursday, November 23, 2006


Yosi is a fun and energetic performer from New Jersey. He's released four kids' music albums, and they all have some good songs, but seeing as today is Thanksgiving (btw, Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!) and Thanksgiving is known for copious food consumption, I thought I would focus on Yosi's latest release, What's Eatin' Yosi?

When most rock bands release concept albums, they tend to be very grandiose kinds of subjects, like the repression of individualism on Rush's 2112, the class structure metaphors of Pink Floyd's Animals, and The Downward Spiral depicting Trent Reznor's um, downward spiral. But kids' music concept albums tend to be focused on things like "having fun" or
"lullabies" or "animals" (but not usually in the class structure metaphor way) or "socks" (well, I predict that socks will be next year's big theme of choice). Food-related songs do crop up quite a bit on children's albums, and the many different kinds of foods would seem to be a good source for material, so Yosi had a good idea with this concept.

What's Eatin' Yosi starts off with a rollickin' Nawlin's style romp called "Let's Get Cookin'". Yosi has a Buddy Holly kind of yelp and twang to his voice on this one, and it's a great first course for the meal, copping Hank Williams' "good lookin'/cookin'" rhyme on the refrain.

There are some other tasty morsels on the album... "Pass the Purple Pesto Pasta Please" is next, and the title says it all on that one. It actually builds up from that phrase to things like "Pass the purple pesto pasta in a porcelain pitcher," with Yosi ably twisting his tongue to get it all out. I might have gone with a porcelain platter, though, but I suppose pouring from a pitcher might be a faster means of pasta distribution. Regardless, it's a really cute song and a swingin' Dixieland sound makes this track a favorite of mine to snack on. "Chilly Chili" has a sweet Frank Zappa and the Wailers kind of vibe and a catchy vocal. The traditional song "Bulbes (Potatoes)" has a bouncy eastern European sound with some delicious clarinet on top by Mark Fineberg (who also adds some nice saxaphone on "Don't Doodle"). "Fresh Brown Eggs" is a chewy folk duet with Yosi and Brady Rymer. "Just Desserts" is a 50's style rock 'n' roll dish, served cool. "Schlurpknopf" is an amusing Rocky Horror style sci-fi number about the favorite food of aliens everywhere. "Spaghetti Worms and Meatballs" is an a cappella barbershop song that reminded me a little bit of The Music Man, A Mighty Wind and Arlo Guthrie (confirmed by the direct Arlo parody at the end).

Strangely, the album ends with a song called "I Just Love You", which has no reference to food at all (and it could have with that title, if he were talking about food). I suppose that might be the after-meal conversation, or meant to be a post-script in the way that "All You Need is Love" sort of 'answered' the Sgt. Pepper's album, but I'm not sure how it would connect with the food theme in any way.

Some things like "Chicken Noodle Soup" and "Eat, Repeat" didn't taste that good to me, but then again, I can't fathom why anybody would ruin a perfectly good piece of pizza by putting mushrooms all over it. But of course, some people love mushrooms. So who knows what you might prefer.
Some of the songs taste really good at first but kind of go on a bit long, so it's almost as though someone gave you a nice piece of pumpkin pie and you were like, mmmm, but then they kept feeding you more and more pieces of pumpkin pie over and over. But on the whole, it's a cool album with a good variety of musical food groups represented.

I'm not sure what the overall meaning of the concept is supposed to be, though, and there are some important questions left unanswered... Does Tommy's pinball proficiency make a difference to how much he likes chicken noodle soup? Did Ziggy Stardust eat schlurpknopf on Mars? Did Syd Barrett really come into the studio during the recording of "Spaghetti Worms and Meatballs"? We may never know. But that's the thing about concept albums... they can get you thinking in different ways. In this case, thinking about food... but let's face it, food is something we animals think of often, and probably still will be a major focus of our lives even in 2112.

Yosi had a fun idea to go along with this album, by hosting a webpage with recipes from several notable kids' music performers, writers, and media folks. Click here to check that out, and look for my "Where's Waldorf Salad" and "Hippy Hippo Shake".

Yosi's website

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Sippy Cups

The Sippy Cups... wooooow, maaaaan... I don't exactly know where to start with this one. Their new album Electric Storyland is kind of all over the place, in many respects. Thankfully, many of the places it is all over are pretty cool ones, so I generally like a lot about the album. I do, however, have some strange feelings about some aspects of it, so I'm going to have to step carefully onto the giant chessboard for this one.

You knew it was coming, right? A hippie freak kids' music band. (And I mean 'hippie freak' in a most affectionate way, having been one myself.) In a way, it seems a perfect fit, as hippie freaks and children sort of share a similarly colorful sense of wonder about life and the world around them. And musically, there's some great gold to mine in them thar hills. I always leaned toward the more rock oriented hippie freak music, like the Doors and early Floyd and Zappa (though Zappa was brilliantly making fun of the hippie freak scene while also being a part of it), and that's definitely where the Sippy Cups seem to be coming from, so that's really cool for me. But much of their music is also more modern sounding, so it's not as though they sound terribly dated or retro, which is good.

The first song on Electric Storyland takes right off on the album's parody title with a perfect Hendrix homage called "Drinking from the Sky". There's a great guitar riff and funky groove to this one, with enough of a modern production sound to remind you of Lenny Kravitz doing a version of Jimi. There's a hint of a fake British accent on the vocal, which is a big musical pet peeve of mine (well, I mean fake British accents... real ones are fine), and that almost makes it sound like Oasis (not a favorite band of mine, at all), but not enough that I don't still like the song a lot. (Then again, maybe Sippy Paul is from Birmingham? If so, then I retract that charge.)

There are a wide variety of other songs on Electric Storyland. "Little House of Jello" is a Wiggle-esque number with a bouncy organ riff. "Springtime Fantastic" is a really great modern heavy pop-rock tune with jangly guitars and a very catchy vocal. "Move Your Pants" introduces Sippy Alison singing, which reminds me of The Wiggles' songs where Dorothy the Dinosaur sings. "The Snail Song" has a beautiful refrain, but I wonder what exactly it's trying to say... is a kid picking up a snail and throwing it in the air and then watching it fall to the ground? I'm not exactly sure, but that's kind of how it sounds, which seems a bit disturbing. "How to Build a Dog" is an interesting idea, lyrically, but becomes too much of a repetitive cacophony for me to ever want to hear again after the first listen. "Use Your Words" is kind of a Blur cop and has a good beat to it. "The Jellyfish" reminds me a lot of the tone and approach of some songs by The Tragically Hip, one of my favorite bands, so I like that a lot, and I'm choosing to find the "ettle" rhymes charmingly droll instead of just weird.

And then, in my opinion, the best songs on the album are among the last five. "Little Puffer" is a terrifically chugging train song with a great chord change on the "woo woo" of the train whistle. "I Am a Robot" is a really cool Pink Floyd meets Radiohead (well, those two bands don't have too far to meet in musical terms, I suppose) kind of story about a robot from outer space looking for what we call love. It's an A.I. or Short Circuit type of thing, and very well done. "Magic Toast" starts off sounding like Kate Bush's early work, and then in other sections sounds a lot like Jefferson Airplane, David Bowie, The Partridge Family and The Mamas and the Papas. I suppose on this and on some of the other songs, the band's influences are a little too transparent, but not so much so that the songs don't stand up on their own. "Flower Tower" would be at home on any Justin Roberts album, right down to the production tones and backing vocals. Closing out the album is "Time Out World", which is a top notch, Beatle-esque anthem. Great song, great pseudo-idealistic words. Great way to end the disc and make you want more.

There are a few interludes between the songs with silly sounding characters, but other than one or two jokes that land in the second and third ones, they didn't seem to work that well for me. The second one, for example, is a skit with a bunch of new-age/hippie lingo, like "pachouli", "chakra" and "feng-shui". Sure, I'm all for making fun of new-age/hippie lingo, but the thing is, merely hearing those words may be amusing, but it's not necessarily comedy. And the first interlude where a 'Major Minor' mispronounces the Sippy Cups band name reminds me of when The Wiggles do some of their between song shtick. It's just not funny, really, probably not even for the 2 year-olds they're intended for. These guys are obviously creative and have a deliciously skewed perspective, but I would have liked to hear more actual humor.

This is great music in many appreciable ways, with a super tight and very adventurous band, and I love it for what it is, but there's something I wonder as I listen to it... Is it great music for kids? In some cases, like "Move Your Pants" and "Little Puffer", I'd say definitely yes, but for some other things like "I Am a Robot", "Drinking from the Sky" and "Springtime Fantastic", I'm not so sure. Some things sound more like music meant for adults with some vaguely kid-related lyrics. And the vocals are often very buried in the mix, just like a lot of adult music, so it wouldn't even make that much of a difference what the words are. And having just read the press release that was included with the CD, I can't help but think that was indeed the intention. Here are some quotes:
"Somewhere during the course of every Sippy Cups show, there is the moment when a parent meets the eye of another parent, and raises a pint glass in triumph." “We’re appealing to parents who are psyched to get back to the clubs and want to hear music they can connect to..." “Basically, we’re providing a service to parents whose lighters may be a little rusty, but they still have a spark.” So I'm wondering, is there a point when the "kid" is no longer the focus of "kids' music"? (Can I get a - "Won't somebody please think of the children??!!!") I've played this CD several times now in the house and in the car ('cause I like it so much) and my kids haven't responded at all to it, whereas they typically love a lot of other kids' music I play and start bouncing and dancing and asking me to turn it up and play it again (without any encouragement from me to do so). I mean, all kids have different tastes, and mine are probably under the target range that would most appreciate this CD, being only 4 and (almost) 2. But they typically like a wide range of kids' music, and I think that perhaps with other kids' music they have more of a sense that what they're hearing is meant more specifically for them, and they are excited and engaged by that (well, if it's good). I suspect they don't feel that as much in this case, for whatever reason. I mean, I love it, so I'm happy to play it for me, and I think that anybody who likes good music should get this CD, regardless. But you'll have to find out for yourself whether it's something your kids will respond to.

I also wonder about the... uh, gosh, how to put this... psychadelic aspect of much of their lyrics. Things like "Drinking from the Sky", "Little Puffer" and "Magic Toast" are likely to raise a few eyebrows from certain straight-laced parents out there, especially those who thought that Peter, Paul and Mary's "Puff the Magic Dragon" was a little too edgy.

I do have to blast them outright for dissing The Wiggles in their press release, claiming that, "We're not in Wiggles land anymore." You'll notice I specifically compared some things about their CD to The Wiggles, both positively and negatively. I did that on purpose once I read that... just to goof on them for saying that, for one thing... but also to illustrate one of the points from my previous Wiggles post, that they really aren't all that different from them in some ways, even though they apparently would like to think that they are. And I'm completely serious when I say that some of those songs and interludes are Wiggle-esque. I wasn't just trying to force a connection to help make my point. It's not just the music and the interludes, though... From what I've seen and read about their live shows, they have costume characters and giant inflatables and very colorful "something's always happening" kind of stage shows... just like... The Wiggles. Perhaps most of all their name itself is Wiggle-like. The Sippy Cups? Their music, inasmuch as it is meant for kids, seems to me like it would appeal most to a much older range of kids than would use sippy cups. And the Sippy Paul, Sippy Alison, Sippy Mark thing... That's just way too cutesy in the Greg Wiggle, Anthony Wiggle kind of way.

So anyway, all that being said, I do think The Sippy Cups are a really great band, and they definitely do have cool tunes for kids. They may be best for kids aged 25-45, and those much older kids who hung out at the Fillmore West and flew their freak banners high back in the day in Berzerkeley, but they are cool tunes for kids, nonetheless.

The Sippy Cups website

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Google Reader

There's a great new kids' music band called Google Reader, and I just listened to their debut album called Labs and it's really quite good.

Hardy har har.

Of course for some of you who have already used RSS this will not be news at all, but I just recently discovered that whole thing and how easy it is to use something like Google Reader to collectively keep up on different websites and blogs that I would otherwise have to check individually. With the free Google Reader (you'll need a G-mail account to use it), you just input the 'username' of the blog (which is the first part of the blog's web address - for this site it is cooltunesforkids), then click the Subscribe button and it should hook you right up. In addition to Blogger, you can also set it up to work for blog updates on MySpace, Live Journal and other sites, and for any website that has an RSS feed, such as news sites.

So instead of checking each of those websites and blogs individually to see if there's anything new, you just go to your Google Reader bookmark and it will show you if any of them have new content, which you can access and read directly from there. I have about 20 different blogs and websites set up through there so far and I just leave a Firefox tab with that open behind whatever else I have open. It even refreshes itself to check for changes and the tab will indicate when there are new items. Very cool!

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Yay for me!

Well, I wasn't sure how else to title a post about how I won something without sounding all big-headed (though my hat-size is, in fact, very large), but hopefully "Yay for me!" works okay.

Anyway, I won a toaster! Well no, not really... but the song "Blackbeard, Bluebeard and Redbeard" from my
Monkey Business album did just win the "Best Children's Song" for this year's Just Plain Folks awards. It was totally unexpected, as I had only mentioned the nomination for that briefly on my newsletter and certainly hadn't been campaigning for votes or anything. Turns out a lot of different people must have just liked it a lot and voted for it. (I suppose it may have helped that voting for the awards was going on right around International Talk Like a Pirate Day.) Here's a link for all of the winning songs, and you can currently hear "Blackbeard, Bluebeard and Redbeard" in full at this page and hear a sample below.

I've gotta give mucho credit to the great Kenn Nesbitt, who wrote the poem that the song was based on and worked closely with me on the lyric version (and performed the part of Bluebeard), and to my wife Roseann who helped with the writing and co-produced the song with me (and performed the part of Yellowbeard, the parrot). I guess I'm supposed to receive some kind of trophy for that. Sweet. Roseann and I can share our part, but the problem is how to cut up a trophy to get Kenn his part??

Actually, that is a cool looking toaster. I kind of wish I did have one like that...

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The Cat in the Hat (1971)

I had to make a distinction in the title by adding the "(1971)", because I want to make it clear that when I say "The Cat in the Hat" I am definitely not referring to the 2003 film version starring Mike Myers. That had some moderately funny moments and thankfully gave a name (Conrad) to the boy in the story, which had been bothering my daughter Becca for a while, but it was largely a crude mess of a movie. But having read the books about the hat wearing feline night after night to my girls, we had to rent that film and also borrow the older animated television version from the library and see how they were. The film version went right back after watching it once and I ended up buying the video of the animated version which we've happily watched over and over and over. And I'm probably going to buy the DVD of the animated version as well. So that should say it all right there.

The version I'm referring to is a 26 minute show produced for television in 1971. Among the show's producers were Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones (both known for animating and directing Looney Tunes),
David H. DePatie (who along with Freleng created the Pink Panther animations), and some other guy named Dr. Seuss (who also wrote the script). Starring as "The Cat" was the great novelty singer Allan Sherman (who had one of the earliest kids' music hits with "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh"), and providing the voice of the fish was the legendary voice actor Daws Butler (the voice of Snagglepuss, Yogi Bear, Elroy Jetson, Quick Draw McGraw and many others). So there was definitely some great talent on board for this project, and with Seuss himself a big part of the production you'd think it would probably capture the spirit of his work pretty well, right? Well, it definitely does, and then some. Actually, I suppose you could say that the Mike Myers movie captured the spirit of the Seuss book and then some, but the "and then some" would be meant in a bad way. This "and then some" only adds to the enjoyment.

The show begins with the same premise as the book, where two kids with nothing to do on a rainy day are visited by a strange cat who basically wants to cause trouble and mess their house up. But then it takes a very different direction, where the Cat is quickly asked to leave and is about to go when he realizes that his precious "moss-covered, three-handled family grudunza" is missing. This leads to more lunacy from the Cat and more aggravation for the fish, and best of all it leads to several wonderful songs, which are the best part of an all-around terrific show.

The first song as the kids are sitting around grumbling that there is "absolutely positively nothing to be done" is definitely the most throw-away of the show, but the songs really build from there. The next song is the Cat's dramatic lament for his lost grudunza, and it's with this song that you start to get the idea of how special this show is. With a sublimely nice melody, we have the Cat singing oh so very earnestly, "I'll never see my darling, moss-covered, three-handled family grudunza anymore." There's a just barely under-the-top brilliance to it that has to be seen and heard to be appreciated.

From there the kids, the Cat and the fish are busy searching for this so-called grudunza (which elicits a great line from the ever-skeptical fish, "I'll tell you this... it's not in the unabridged dictionary!"). That leads to a fun bouncy show-tune styled number called "Calculatus Eliminatus", which is the Cat's scientific method for finding something that is lost. The idea is to eliminate and mark all of the places where the missing object isn't, thereby revealing where it must be. More grumbling by the fish follows, which leads the Cat to sing the self-loathing anthem, "I'm a punk, a crutunkulous shnunk." This song is vaguely in the style of "...Mr. Grinch" and although I like it a lot, it's kind of a time filler compared to the other songs and doesn't really advance the plot at all (not that this show is really about 'intricate plotting', though). Following that, the Cat tries to relax the very stressed out fish by singing an exquisite lullaby called "Beautiful Kittenfish". This song is gorgeous with its simple melody, even with silly lyrics directed at the fish like "bloop bloop bloop bloop bloop, bleep bleep bleep bleep bleep".

With the fish asleep, it is the Cat's chance to get serious with the grudunza search, and he enlists the help of his bizarre cohorts, Thing One and Thing Two, who can supposedly find "anything under the sun", which introduces the next song. The song jumps nicely between the Cat's steady marching rhythm and the Things' more frenetic pace as they complain that "there's always some fish, some sour-belly fish, whose only one wish is to flatten the fun". It's amusing to think that everywhere the Cat and his Things go, there's a complaining fish trying to thwart their efforts to have fun.

By this point the fish has had quite enough, and is almost hysterical, yelling "Get those Things out of this house!", to which the Cat replies, "But what is a house without Things?" The fish claims that the Cat isn't really a cat ("whoever heard of a six foot cat?!") and that the strange thing he is wearing on his head can't really be called a hat, can it? This leads to what would be called "the 11 o'clock number" in musical theater terms, or in other words, the big number just before the ending that everybody will remember and hum on the way home. And this song certainly delivers in that respect and is a real showstopper. Starting off with a cute sing-song melody, the Cat demonstrates how he would most certainly be considered a cat wearing a hat in any country around the world. "In English 'cat'/'hat'. In French 'chat'/'chapeau'. In Spanish 'el gato in a sombrero'." This part is repeated and built upon enough times that you'll remember it after the first time you've watched it, and even learn some important things, such as that "cat in a hat" is "gwonka in a bonkequank" in Eskimo. Throughout these verses there are brief musical interludes that are homages to the countries mentioned, including Spanish mariachi and German polka. The charm of the song actually starts to win over the fish and he joins in, even offering the Russian translation of "chapka" in a "shlyapa". This leads the song into another direction, one-upping itself as a chorus fervently sings, "He's a cat of many countries. He's a cat of many hats. Many, many foreign countries and an awful lot of hats." This song goes on and on and must be several minutes long, and yet it is thoroughly enjoyable at every turn. My only disappointment is that it ends at all.

But then the mother's car horn is heard and the kids and the fish realize that she is coming down the street and whatever is to be done about the huge mess in the house? As in the book, the Cat leaves and then quickly returns with his many-armed clean-up machine. You would probably expect this to be an extremely hurried operation, but the Cat is nothing if not cool, and he cleans everything up calmly and confidently while singing a wonderful torch song that is sweetly sad and also beautifully poignant, "Sweep, sweep up the memories, those old untidy memories of what we had one day." I'll bet Babs (Streisand, not Bunny) could have had a hit with this song, as it is perfectly in the vein of things like "The Way We Were". And then, the gwonka in the chapeau is gone, and the mother returns with a surprising revelation. And then the video is rewinded and watched again. And I don't mean that necessarily with my kids, although they love it... But I like this show so much that I thoroughly enjoy watching and listening to it on my own, repeatedly.

The songs for the show were created by Dean Elliott, and they are astounding and memorable at every turn. Elliott also wrote the songs for the cartoon version of "Green Eggs and Ham" and "The Sneetches", which came out in 1973, but the songs in that sound kind of cheesed out, as you might expect from music in the 70's, and they don't have nearly the same appeal for me. Thankfully, that kind of 70's cheese hadn't kicked in too hard yet by 1971, so the Cat in the Hat songs were just brilliant and timeless songs, enjoyable for any time or era. If you haven't seen this yet, then by all means find out if your local library has a copy and check it out (make sure it is the right one, though, as there is also a "Cat in the Hat" video which is just someone reciting the book verbatim with pictures from the book as a slideshow). And if you like this as much as I do you'll want to go directly to one of the following links or to eBay and get yourself a copy...

The Cat in the Hat (1971) DVD on

Seuss Celebration DVD on (which includes this and other Seuss shows)

Monday, November 06, 2006

John Carlin

The first thing that I thought when I put on John Carlin's First Time for Everything album was, wow, how did he get Randy Newman to sing on his album? Then I realized, ah yeah, that's actually John singing. So whether or not you like Randy Newman's vocal style might influence whether you go any farther with this album. But Randy's style doesn't make we want to sneer and mutter "Newman!" under my breath, so I continued on. (Okay, that's two Seinfeld references in a row... I promise no more for a while.) And as it turned out, the Randy Newman voice is just one aspect of John Carlin's vocal ability. He has a great variety of sounds and styles in his vocal palette, and although sometimes it sounds a bit too much like he's doing an 'impression', when he sings naturally it's really quite cool.

John is also a very good songwriter, in particular on the incredibly infectious "Runaround", which reminds me of Cheap Trick's guitar rock hits. I also really liked the "Groovin'" groove of the title track, with its cool "wee-ooh" backing vocals and it's David Lee Roth meets Louis Armstrong vocal style. I was a little disappointed by the 'rhyme' of "thing" and "thing" in the chorus (couldn't he have used "sing" or "wing" or "bling bling"?), but that might not bother too many people. "Bein' a Dog" has a good acoustic vibe and is a great participation song in the spirit of Barry Louis Polisar's "I Wanna Be a Dog". I appreciated the strangely mysterious intro to "I Like You", until it turned out that it wasn't just the intro, but the whole song goes on like that. It's very much a 'musical tension' kind of thing, and I'm all for that, but at some point it felt to me like it really needed to go somewhere else, if only briefly. Imagine if you heard an amazing gospel choir sing a majestic "Hallelujah" chorus and at the end they did a big long "ahhhhhhhhhhh" but never did the "men". The musical part of your brain would be tearing its hair out. The final track "Not Alone" is a sweet and melodic charmer with some cute lyrics like "Twinkling in the dark/There must be a billion stars shining down from heaven/Is there one for me?/And will I ever learn to be as wise as I am when I'm seven?"

On First Time for Everything, John also adds a few traditional song renditions, including "Waltzing Matilda", "This Little Light of Mine" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb". These songs really show off the nice natural singing voice and interesting phrasing that John has, and "Mary Had a Little Lamb" is reimagined in a very nice way.

The album was recorded by John in a rehearsal studio and the production is kind of uneven. The acoustic songs sound great, but the others could have been a little more polished. There are a few things that I wasn't entirely crazy about on this album, but for the most part I really loved it, and I think John Carlin will definitely be one to listen to as he continues to produce music for kids.

John Carlin website

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Frances England

I'm usually a little behind the hype on things, which is sort of a "win some, lose some" kind of a thing. I was disappointed that I only started watching Seinfeld after about the fourth or fifth season of hearing how great it was. But when I finally watched an episode of Friends after its immense popularity made me curious, I was glad that I hadn't bothered with it. It was funny in its own way, but just not really something I wanted to commit to. I guess it takes a lot of hype and accolades about something to make me take notice and then decide whether or not I want to embrace it for myself, and that's one part skepticism and two parts a lack of time to check out everything that I might like to.

I'd read a positive notice about Frances England's debut children's album Fascinating Creatures from Stefan at Zooglobble, and I went to listen to a couple of brief samples and thought, "Sounds nice." But I didn't really pay it much mind at the time. And then The Lovely Mrs. Davis raved about her, and then someone else, and then a few more someone elses. It still didn't light a fire under me to check her out further, though. And that was a few months ago, but then I read about Frances again recently in the wake of her receiving some awards for Fascinating Creatures. At this point I was like, okay, ya got me... I'll take a listen again. And it's true that sometimes you can listen, but not really hear. This time, I definitely heard. And I'm happy to say that I am now very much on the bandwagon about this.

The first time I put on the CD it was intended to be a background thing while I made dinner, but Fascinating Creatures has a sense of immediacy that really pulls you in, with songs that are instantly accessible and memorable. I was totally lost in it while I stirred spaghetti sauce like a zombie. And when the title track came on, my 21 month-old daughter started spontaneously singing the "Hoo-wah" parts, which was incredibly cute and also an amazing testament to the immediate connection the music has. And of course my four year-old daughter who just got a tricycle for her birthday was jazzed right off the bat by the "Tricycle" song and now has to hear that every time the album comes on (which is often).

Some of the power of this album comes from the ethereal "vintage" feel of its audio landscape, which is somewhere between the sound of early Dylan and Robert Johnson, with beautifully analog delayed electric guitar painting lush browns and greens around the bright yellow and red of Frances' acoustic guitar and vocals. (Your colors may vary, but that's what I'm seeing.) There's almost a timeless or dreamlike quality to the production, as simple as it is, often with only guitar, voice and basic percussion. One of my favorite artists of recent years is Leona Naess, and the sound on Fascinating Creatures is sonically in the general neighborhood of "Sunny Sunday" from Naess' I Tried to Rock You album. Vocally, Frances has a lot of the same register hopping, 'pseudo-yodeling' chops as many of the female singers from recent years like Sarah MacLachlan and Dolores O'Riordan
, and yet she still sounds very distinctive. At times her voice is actually very... um... how do I say this... as yummy as blueberry pancakes. Yeah, that's it.

I like this album all the way through, but I do have some favorite tracks including "Charlie Parker", which proves that a short, upbeat pop song can be written about people who are known for performing long, exploratory jazz; "Daddy-O", which slays me every time on the "oh" part; "Sometimes", which is a great example of the extreme mood swings that are a part of being a toddler; and "Busy as a Bee", which is a cute and catchy number about how kids just have way too much important stuff going on to ever acknowledge something as trivial as a 'bedtime'. I had a similar idea for a song recently, but I'm glad that never materialized past the idea point because it wasn't heading in a direction as fun as this.

My wife and I both commented that these songs sounded familiar to us, almost as if we'd heard them before, or if they were maybe borrowed inadvertantly from other songs. But we realized that it was really that they are a perfect example of what Leonard Bernstein once described as the definition of great art - "fresh, but inevitable". The hooks and melodies sound so familiar because they were so inevitable. I believe that Paul MacCartney once said that he almost didn't continue writing "Yesterday", because he was sure that he must have copied the melody for it from something else. But it was just that it was so inevitable of a tune, and nobody had created it yet. These songs have that same kind of simple yet elegant brilliance and they become timeless the first time you hear them.

Frances' songs may seem simple on the surface, both musically and lyrically, but they also speak very deeply and personally from a child's perspective on many tracks. Of course kids themselves will love these songs, but Fascinating Creatures also offers a unique experience for adults, in a way that is much more powerful than just trying to sound like the kind of music adults might like and calling it "music for kids that adults can tolerate". Perhaps moreso than any other children's music that tries to put kids' real life words and experiences to music, I would recommend this album to an adult who wants to revisit their childhood, or who doesn't have kids but wants to appreciate that experience (well, as if an album could ever really begin to do that, but this would be the best example I know of), or a parent who wants to better appreciate the sense of fun and wonder their little ones have. I listen to Fascinating Creatures and I appreciate more deeply the joy and gratitude of sharing my kids' lives with them, and how vibrant and creative their minds are. What a beautiful thing that is to behold, and how great that someone has captured some pictures of that world so well. Fascinating, indeed!

Frances England website

Check out the video for "Tricycle"...

And here are my girls singing along to "Fascinating Creatures"...

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Ralph's World Interview

That's right... Ralph of Ralph's World happened to call me by accident yesterday. He was trying to reach a pizza place, but he misdialed seven of the ten digits and it ended up being my phone number. How lucky that I just happened to be sitting by the phone and typing up some questions for my "if I ever get to interview Ralph" scrapbook.

I learned some fascinating things... for example, that his last name is actually 'Covert' and not 'Swirled', and that 'twee' is actually a style of music, not a thing with bwanches and woots. Many thanks to Ralph for clearing that up and taking some time to talk with me. I really appreciate it, and I'm sure you'll all enjoy hearing his comments on music and songwriting, and about his troubled and sordid history with concert choreography.

Ralph has a new CD/DVD compilation called "Welcome to Ralph's World" that is now available from Disney Records. He also has a nice new website, so check that out.

Monday, October 16, 2006


Testing 1 - 2 - 3.14159

Daddy A Go Go

When my latest CD, Snow Day!, was reviewed by The Lovely Mrs. Davis, she referred to me as being in the "goofy dad" sub-genre of children's music. Her description of that was: The "Goofy Dads" are trying as hard to make kids laugh as they are trying to make kids sing and dance. They have (a) high-energy, laugh-a-minute approach to music, and sometimes push the boundaries of appropriateness. She named me in conjunction with other apparent "Goofy Dads" including Trout Fishing in America, Yosi and Daddy A Go Go. Not bad company, I must say, and sure enough, those other artists are right up my kid musical alley. Having finally given a good listen to Daddy A Go Go, I have to say that in some respects he's a goofier dad than I am, and I would have some catching up to do if I wanted to attain his level of "Goofy Dad"-ness.

The latest Daddy A Go Go album is called Eat Every Bean and Pea on Your Plate. If you say that instead of just reading it, you should get the humor of that (and I hope you're not drinking any milk when you do). It's the kind of joke that seven year-old boys everywhere will laugh their heads off at and tell all of their friends, possibly getting into trouble from their teachers for repeating it over and over. And seven year-old girls will all go "Ewwww!" but still probably laugh, at least privately. After all, girls are much more mature than boys as they grow up (eventually boys may catch up to girls in maturity, when they're about 64 or so). Clearly John Boydston, the daddy behind Daddy A Go Go, has not turned 64 yet, and that's great for kids everywhere. John has a terrific sensibility for rock 'n' roll and a very consistent sound and style to his songs. Most of his music has the rockabilly meets country tone of BR5-49, with some of the edgier twang of the E Street Band, and a sprinkle of surf rock a la The Ventures.

Eat Every Bean... is such a great title, because it instantly lets you know exactly what you're getting; fun music with clever wordplay and some great humor. And that translates through to all of the Daddy A Go Go albums. In the Dylan-esque song "Scaredy Cat Cowboy Pt. 1" from Mojo A Go Go, the second verse goes off out of the rhyme and rhythm scheme for a brilliantly bizarre description of the cowboy's 'operaphobia'. I like that he took a turn that wasn't expected, and yet it still worked within the context of the song. He has several songs that are sort of parodies, at least in the wordplay sense, as in "Nice Mare on Elm Street" and "For Those About to Walk (We Salute You)", though I was a little disappointed that the latter wasn't an actual parody of the Ack-Dack anthem. He can be really clever with words on things like "Pink Floyd Saves Hugh Manatee", an Elvis-y number about a flamingo named Sigmund Floyd, where he creates an alternate universe story with lots of little jokes mixed in for the adults. He can even be poignant and funny at the same time, as in "Get Off the Computer" from Big Rock Rooster: You know I’m looking everywhere trying to find my mom/She’s sitting in her chair shopping everything dot com/I said Hey Mom, get off the computer/Come and look – I just got cuter/Hey Mom get off the computer now. Daddy A Go Go also offers some interesting covers, including Spinal Tap's "Listen to the Flower People" (though I missed the "ahhh"s), and The Partridge Family's "Come on, Get Happy", as well as several instrumental covers like "Linus and Lucy" (the Peanuts theme) and "To Sir, with Love", all in his trademark super twangy style.

The humor of Daddy A Go Go ranges from wryly intelligent stuff all the way down to the lowest common denominator - silly puns. And no doubt kids love it. This 37 year-old sure does, though maybe I'll have to hide my amusement when I'm 64.

Daddy A Go Go website

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Schoolhouse Rock!

As the story goes, in the early 1970s, ad exec David McCall noticed that his 11-year-old son was having trouble memorizing his multiplication tables, but he knew all the words to popular rock songs. So McCall had the brilliant idea to marry memorable music with concepts that kids need to learn, and Schoolhouse Rock! was born.

Other than watching Sesame Street and The Electric Company when I was very little, I never really listened to "kids music" growing up. My family had a jukebox in our family room and that was filled with various 70's hits and some novelty tracks that I loved like "Shaving Cream", but there were no songs by Raffi, The Wiggles or Ralph's World (mostly because they weren't around then, or at least, their kids' music wasn't). The songs I listened to the most when I was a growin' boy were 45's of Elvis, Johnny Cash and songs like "Kung Fu Fighting", "The Night Chicago Died", "Ballroom Blitz" and "Sir Duke". I also liked Beethoven a lot, probably because I was a big Peanuts fan and there was the constant hype about him from Schroeder (and also probably because Beethoven's music is incredible). There were theme songs like Scooby Doo and The Flintstones that were sort of "kids music", in a way, but the only music that I can recall really liking that was specifically geared toward kids in the way we usually think of "kids music" is Schoolhouse Rock!

Of course, Schoolhouse Rock! as I remember it was very much a marriage of the cartoon and the song, but many of the songs hold up very well on their own, and I can remember singing things like "Conjunction Junction" and "I'm Just a Bill" outside of when they happened to come on TV. Other favorites of mine include "The Shot Heard Round the World", "Three is a Magic Number", "My Hero, Zero", "Interjection!", "Unpack Your Adjectives", "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here", "The Tale of Mr. Morton", "Electricity" and "The Preamble". So many great songs about so many different subjects. I think that Schoolhouse Rock! has probably been one of the biggest influences on the current crop of kids' music, or at least, the best of it. The songs had memorable hooks, witty humor and some great music with a lot of variety. Above all, they had character. I don't mean the characters within the songs (although those are great, too), but character as a quality of distinguishing style.

In 1996 there was a compilation released called Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks, featuring some pretty cool artists like Moby, Ween, Pavement and Better than Ezra covering Schoolhouse Rock! tunes. When that album came out, it reintroduced me to those great songs that had been such a fun part of my childhood. I've since rented the videos of the cartoons and realized how great the original versions of those songs are. The recordings sound just a little bit dated in a Grateful Dead meets Vince Guaraldi kind of way, but the songs and performances are still terrific.

Schoolhouse Rock! Wikipedia page

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The Idea Tree

I've always been interested in the different ways that people come up with ideas for songs, films, books, products, etc. Where does the inspiration come from? How does one idea sometimes develop into another? Children's musician Monty Harper has a blog and podcast about the process of writing his songs, so I thought I'd share a little about some of the different ways that ideas for my songs have come together.

First of all, I should say that I believe that ideas are available in abundance. I really don't believe in such a thing as "writer's block". I believe in writer's procrastination, writer's laziness, writer's excuses, writer's self-doubt, etc. But not writer's block. A writer can always write, they may just need to actually press the pen to the paper, or the finger to the keyboard, or the pick to the guitar. What comes out when we try to write may not always be something terrific, but we can always write something if we at least try. Sometimes we'll need to edit that "something" quite a bit; sometimes we'll need to crumple it up and throw it in a pile on the floor; and sometimes what we write initially will not come to fruition but will be the impetus that leads us to write a better "something".

I picture a big "idea tree", where there are millions of different ideas... Sometimes we'll get lucky and one will fall off and hit us on the head, even when we're not looking for one; sometimes we'll need to actually climb high up into the tree and reach hard for an idea that's on the far end of a branch; and oftentimes we have to walk around the tree holding a bushel and catch what falls in and see if we can make anything out of it. But the ideas are always there, we may just need to take action to get them, or at least be receptive to catching them.

# 1 - emotion + brick wall + unexpected twist = "The Elephant Song"
The first song I specifically wrote as a 'kids' music artist' was "The Elephant Song", which is still a favorite of many (I may spend the rest of my career trying to equal that!). But the original idea and intent for that song was completely different than what it turned out to be. My wife Roseann and I had watched a PBS documentary about two elephant friends who had been seperated at a young age to go work in circuses in different parts of the world. They were reunited many years later and instantly remembered each other and still had an incredible bond. It was more compelling and touching in the presentation than how I'm describing it, but it stirred an intense "reuniting, reconciliation, rebirth, resurrection" kind of emotion in me and made me want to write a song about that, more in a metaphorical sense than anything literally about elephants. Picking up a guitar at that moment the music flowed right out, and I quickly came up with a first verse of lyrics that went something like, "A long time/ I missed you so much/I finally got these chains off of me". And there was another line or two, but I can't remember any more than that. But much as I tried, I just could not get past that first verse of lyrics. Roseann, knowing the source of the inspiration for the music and hearing me trying over and over again to get past that point with the words, started jokingly singing along, "Elephants, I like elephants" when she'd hear me playing that. I sneered and said, "Very funny..." But the way she sang it was catchy and soon I was singing that to myself in the car one day, and for reasons that I can only call some bizarre kind of inspiration, I then added, "I like how they swing through trees." It didn't make any sense at all, of course, but suddenly I stopped and thought, wait a minute, that could actually work... And thus "The Elephant Song" was born.

- Watch the video for "The Elephant Song" -

Often songs are initially conceived from some kind of intense emotion, whether that is hurt, joy, desire or anger. Emotions are hard to express, and so we turn to art to make an attempt to do so. If it wasn't for the feeling I had from watching that show about elephants, I'd never have created that music which led to that song. But then I hit a big brick wall and couldn't get past a certain point with the lyrics. I think brick walls are significant when creating art because they mean something, but it's not always clear what. Perhaps you should try to find a way to get over or around or through the wall, or turn around and go another direction, or maybe you have to wait patiently by the wall until it is somehow removed, which happens sometimes. So the brick wall was a big part of this song for me, and then it took a bizarre joke and unexpected twist to find the way around the wall.

#2 - request + guilt + ad lib = "Cowboy Bergaleoukaleopaleous"
I was playing a gig near Seattle last year when between songs a cute little kid asked if I could please play a 'cowboy song'. I paused for a second, then realized, no, I can't. I didn't know any cowboy songs. I think I appeased him somewhat with a pirate song, but I still felt bad about that. So emotion was in play again, this time in the form of a strange sort of guilt that I had let him down in some small way by not playing a cowboy song. Right away after the gig, I was starting to think about what kind of cowboy song I might come up with. As it happens, at the same show I had done an ad lib during a song where I sing the kids' names, a la Ralph's World's "The Name Song". I was looking for someone with a really long name, so I jokingly asked, "Is there anyone here named Octavius?" Of course there wasn't, but when thinking about the cowboy song later I had an idea for a song about a cowboy who had a really terrible or unlikely 'cowboy name', like Cowboy Octavius. I quickly came up with a little musical hook that included that title and sang it for Roseann. She liked the idea, but thought that if we were going to do that, we should go completely over the top with it and cram as many syllables as possible into the same musical space. Thus, the legend of "Cowboy Bergaleoukaleopaleous" came to be. So it was the impetus of the cute kid making me feel bad and the timing of the Octavius ad lib that made the song come together the way it did.

- Listen to "Cowboy Bergaleoukaleopaleous" in the player below -

#3 - paying attention to sounds and phrases = "The Monkeys" and "In the Box"
Sometimes song ideas just roll off the tongue or come almost directly from another source, but I have to be paying attention to them and ready to develop them beyond the initial thought of "hey, that's interesting". My daughter Becca was watching a show on Animal Planet about monkeys one day while I was working on some music in the same room. I happened to hear one of the monkeys do a cool sounding rhythmic phrase "ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ah ah ah", and I started repeating that and added another little part to the phrase. That exact phrase became the chorus part of the song "The Monkeys" (perhaps I owe those monkeys some royalties?). We still needed an idea for the song, though, and in that case we decided to combine the idea of a group of singing monkeys with an homage to another famous group of singing Monkees. For "In the Box", Becca was playing with blocks and it was time for bed, so I pointed to the Lego box and said, "Can you put 'em in the box?" I didn't sing it or mean it in any kind of 'song' way, but the rhythm of that phrase rolled off my tongue in a fun way, so I repeated it and started singing a simple melody with it. Best of all, my singing of that phrase really encouraged Becca to pick up and put away the blocks!

- Listen to "The Monkeys" in the player below -

- Listen to "In the Box" in the player below -

#4 - the right timing = "Steve the Superhero"
I suppose some aspect of timing and 'synchronicity' is involved in all of these examples, but sometimes an idea may pass by at one time but be ready at another. Kenn Nesbitt is a funny poetry author who I've worked with for a number of my kids' songs. Every so often, I go through his books and his website fishing for song ideas. I had read his poem called "Steve the Superhero" when he first posted it and thought it was really funny, but it didn't hit me initially as a song possibility. Months later, I was watching an episode of Futurama which was a spoof of superheroes, called The New Justice Team. They even had their own superhero theme song, very much in the style of Batman and Spiderman and things like that, and I thought it was hilarious. About a week later, I happened to be going through Kenn's poems again and came upon "Steve the Superhero" again. This time, it was like, heyyyyyyy... How fun would that be?!

- Listen to "Steve the Superhero" in the player below -

A friend of mine once told me that there are no ordinary moments... I thought, nah, there are a lot of times that are kind of dull or where nothing much is happening. But she explained that once in a while exciting things do happen or things come together in interesting and powerful ways, and if we look back we can see how a lot of different and seemingly insignificant things had to happen along the way to make those special things happen. (And when she said that, I had to write a song about that idea called "Extra Ordinary", which wasn't a kids' song but which I might adapt for a future kids' album.) It's kind of the 'butterfly wings causing hurricanes' effect. And that's how the timing thing works sometimes for creative ideas. Sometimes the stars align and that's the coolest time to be looking up in the sky, but it's also cool to be able to appreciate the different paths those stars took before they aligned.

Many ideas are pretty straightforward... ("I think I'd like to write a robot song.") and lot of times I find myself thinking pretty broadly about different subjects that I might write about, but lately I realize that sometimes there can be a wealth of ideas by thinking laterally within a more focused view. The universe is infinitesimally large but it also goes incredibly far down into the sub-atomic, with various layers to explore along the way. I wouldn't have thought that albums with songs all about fish or full of all new original Christmas related songs would really be too interesting, but Shel Silverstein's Underwater Land and Trout Fishing in America's Merry Fishes to All are both among my favorite kids' music albums. I'm thinking that a good songwriter could do an entertaining album of songs all about socks if so inclined. In fact, I'd like to see that: Justin Roberts releases The Sock Album. And creative perspective is so unique to each individual that I'm sure Justin's sock album would be quite different from Laurie Berkner's or Ralph's World's or Dan Zanes' or mine. (I'm predicting 2007 to be the year of the sock album!)

Of course, just because there are many ideas to find and develop, that doesn't mean they're all good ideas, but that's a very personal and subjective thing to determine. In my case, there have been some ideas that I wasn't sure about at all. But I've found that some ideas are worth trying just for the sake of trying, and if I trust my instinct and intuition then I'm probably okay. When we first wrote "The Elephant Song" we really didn't know if it would be received well by kids or if they'd just think I was a looney. Well, they sometimes think I'm a looney anyway, but thankfully they loved that song in a big way right from the start. For my Monkey Business album, we had an idea for a radio skit styled game show spoof called "The Math Game". It was fun to do, but being a six minute long comedy piece with a fair amount of adult level humor, we thought it would be appreciated by some parents but probably skipped over by kids. To our amazement, we've met many kids who have that album who know that track by heart and who request for me to perform it, and it is the second best selling download from that album on iTunes, after "The Monkeys". So at this point I'm more inclined to trust whatever ideas I find worth pursuing to be something that my fans will probably also like.

Kids are such a great audience for sharing creative ideas with, because they are so open to new ideas themselves. I read this quote in a book recently- kids enter school as question marks and leave as periods. What a shame that is. The book (A Whack on the Side of the Head, by Roger von Oech) also cited an example where an ink splotch on a piece of paper was shown to groups of high school students and kindergarteners. The high school kids described it mostly as "an ink splotch on a piece of paper". The kindergarteners had something like 50 different descriptions for that ink splotch; a monster, a fire, a spider, etc. Kids see the many creative ideas that are everywhere around them. So can we, if we just hang out near that Idea Tree with our bushels ready, and are willing to make the occasional climb if needed.