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"...