Thursday, September 28, 2006

You're the One & My Best Day

Stefan over at Zooglobble (without a doubt the most comprehensive source for kids' music coverage on the web) has begun a new series of guest posts with kids' music artists doing reviews of albums (kids' music or otherwise) that influenced them in some way. I've started off the series with a post about my favorite album of the last several years, Paul Simon's You're the One. Check it out here.

Also, I should mention that the purpose of this blog isn't to be a real source of kids' music news, especially as sites like Zooglobble and The Lovely Mrs. Davis Tells You What to Think are so much better about covering that kind of stuff. But I suppose I might mention when some of my favorite artists that I've already covered here have some significant news, or a new release that wasn't mentioned in my original feature. For example, Trout Fishing in America have a new live album out, called
My Best Day. You can hear samples and purchase the album here.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Wiggles

I can hear it now... "What? Are you serious? The Wiggles? Cool tunes for kids??? The Wiggles?????? Come on, Eric!!"

In a word... absolutely!

It's almost become tiresome for me to keep seeing references by other kids' artists dissing The Wiggles in some way or other, or promoting their music as if it's so much cooler and better than The Wiggles. In fact, I may have seen that exact phrase on someone's CDBaby blurb - "so much cooler and better than The Wiggles." But I honestly have to wonder if these people have actually listened to the Wiggles music. And in my opinion, those claims wouldn't hold up in many cases. The Wiggles do have great music and a huge body of memorable songs that would be difficult for any kids' artist to match.

I understand and agree that The Wiggles have some annoying elements of their whole package... the repetitiveness and limited humor in the interludes of their videos and shows (i.e. "Wake up, Jeff!"); the almost constant branding of their characters within their songs (at least every other song is about "wiggling" or "Wags the Dog" or "Dorothy the Dinosaur", etc.); and the absolute proliferation of their image and logo on toys everywhere. They're a slickly marketed sell-out machine, right? No, they're just hugely successful for what they do, and deservedly so. The rest of us could only hope to have a LeapPad game based on our music and an electronic toy guitar with our face on it. But let's not let envy or jealousy make us nasty toward them, eh?

I remember first hearing about The Wiggles in references to them being "The Beatles of children's music" and kind of pooh-poohing that idea. Certainly in terms of their immense popularity as a group of four guys, I couldn't disagree, but I resented that comparison in a musical sense. The Beatles created some of the greatest and most memorable pop/rock music ever. Let's not dare refer to these guys in that sense, I thought. So at first I was inclined to jump on the anti-Wiggle bandwagon and ready to think as I walked down the aisles at Walmart, "That should be me on that toy leafblower, not The Wiggles!" But the truth is that having since heard their music quite a lot (my daughters love them), I can even agree with that comparison in a musical sense.

Lyrically, no. They are not writing anything with any kind of depth, as far as the words go (nor should they, for their preschool audience). But then again, a lot of early Beatles songs were pretty insipid, lyrically speaking. And The Wiggles don't have the musical complexity of some of The Beatles work in terms of the chords and structure, but they do seem to have the same innate knack for creating (yes, they do write their own songs) almost instantly memorable hooks and grooves, and they come up with some really fun riffs for many of their songs (i.e. "Zardo Zap", "The Wiggles World"). For their target audience, they offer quite a wide range of rock, pop, folk and other styles. Who else is doing such a great variety of quality music for 2 and 3 year-olds?? I don't know if the band arranges all of their own music, but the arrangements are often terrific. The piano and trumpet of "Captain Feathersword Fell Asleep" is really well built-up, the lush arrangement on "Food Food Food" is quite beautiful, and they have some interesting guitar tones on songs like "Henry's Underwater Big Band". They even have some quite involved instrumentals, like "Officer Beaple's Dance" and "Let's Have a Ceili".

Some of their stuff is hit or miss, and it seems that the songs for some of their albums and videos were kind of 'cranked out', but some of their collections are really solid. I would recommend their Toot Toot or Wiggle Time videos as good examples of The Wiggles' best music and the different styles and arrangements they offer. I've also heard good things about their live concerts, which particularly feature the comedic and vocal talents of Paul Paddick (aka Captain Feathersword).

Here's a suggestion for the Wiggles dissers out there... Try imagining their songs with something else in place of the lyrics for songs like "Hot Potato" and "Captain Feathersword Fell Asleep", and tell me those wouldn't be considered the best of the best in kids' music songs. If Ralph or Justin or Trout Fishing had penned them with different lyrics and recorded them, everyone would be like, "Yeah, that's cool." The Wiggles have many great songs in that same sense. You just have to get past, or get used to, their ever-branding lyrics. And even the branding lyrics I can appreciate more than I used to... They've created a unique world for their very young audience, so why shouldn't they perpetuate that? And I have to remember that they are clearly not targeting kids older than about five, so I can't expect lyrics that are too difficult for most younger kids to pick up.

There's certainly no need for me to defend The Wiggles... They seem to be doing fairly well on their own (ahem). This is more of a call out to my colleagues to lay off of them. What sense would it have been for peers of The Beatles in the 60's to publically diss them because of their popularity? Yes, I know, some of you think The Wiggles don't have any actual talent, and therefore don't deserve their popularity, but I suggest you reconsider that and give them a fair listen, especially before announcing that to the world. It sure doesn't hurt them any, but it doesn't reflect well on you to say that and gives you a heck of a standard to have to match. Are you really so much cooler and better than The Wiggles? There are several million preschoolers the world over (and at least one 37 year-old) who you'll have to convince.

The Wiggles website

My thoughts on the departure of Greg Page from The Wiggles...

Reviews of the Getting Strong and Wiggly Wiggly World

Friday, September 08, 2006

John Lithgow

Yes, John Lithgow of stage, screen and TV screen is also a terrific children's music entertainer. He has released three kids' music albums; Farkle and Friends, Singin' in the Bathtub and the brand new The Sunny Side of the Street. I've heard and enjoyed some of Farkle and Friends but I'm most familiar with Singin' in the Bathtub, so I'll focus on that for this feature.

Singin' in the Bathtub is definitely one of my favorite albums of recent years, kids' music or otherwise. All but one of the songs on Bathtub are reworkings of older songs (Farkle includes more Lithgow originals), some of which were meant as kids' songs, and some which weren't but work well enough for that audience with Lithgow's performances.

The thing that seperates Lithgow's renditions from the many others who have covered some of the same material isn't so much the beautifully souped up big band and orchestral arrangements by Bill Elliott (though those are fantastic), but moreso the delivery of Lithgow. Often over-the-top in the best way, sometimes artfully reserved, and always entertaining to the kid inside me. Every now and again you'll run across an adult who seems to have a low tolerance for cartoonish voices, but a lot of kids love them. Lithgow's voice is definitely cartoonish at times on Bathtub, though always with character, which is probably an important distinction to make. His delivery of both the singing parts and animal sounds in "I Had a Rooster" is right up the alley of every giggle-prone preschool kid I've ever played for. He also has an effortlessly fun way with wordplay songs like "I'm a Gnu", "From the Indies to the Andies in His Undies" and "The Hippopotamus Song". His version of "Swingin' on a Star" may be my favorite of any I've heard, with extra points to Bill and the band for some hot playing on that one. Other highlights include the parody "You Gotta Have Skin", the amusingly twangy "Big Kids" (the one Lithgow original on Bathtub) and the gorgeous "Inchworm".

It's funny how my perception of John Lithgow changed so abruptly several years ago... I had seen him in a few films, usually either as the villain (Raising Cain, Cliffhanger) or as an offbeat crazy person (The Twilight Zone). I remember being thrown off by the initial promos for 3rd Rock from the Sun, featuring him in a zany comedy role. I thought, what an odd casting choice. But of course, once I started watching and loving the show, it was obvious that over-the-top zany comedy was right up his alley all along, and now my first thought of him is in terms of crazy comedy, and not as a crazy villain. There is no doubt that John Lithgow is one of the most talented and versatile entertainers of all time. He brings such a fun spirit to his children's albums, and it's a unique pleasure to be entertained by him through his music. I'm really looking forward to hearing his new album and enjoying what else he comes up with for kids (of all ages) in the future.

John Lithgow website

Saturday, September 02, 2006

I haven't had a chance lately to add anything here, but my touring season is about to wind down somewhat for the fall and winter, so look for new posts coming soon including features on John Lithgow (yup, he does kids' music), Eddie Coker and Schoolhouse Rock, and an article about some of my experiences making decisions about what things are acceptable for inclusion in my original kids' music.