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


Idaho Dad said...

I don't understand Wiggles bashing. I guess when you become really successful some people just get jealous. I find most of the Wiggles songs to be highly listenable. No wonder kids love them -- they sing clearly about easy-to-understand subjects, they have strong melodies and the right amount of quirkiness in their lyrics, and they don't talk down to the kids.

I have a few Sippy Cups songs, but they failed to make an impression on my kids.

You're right... Kids' musicians who are thinking about the entertainment of the parents have got it all wrong. Sing for the kids or sing for the parents, but you can't really do both that well.

Eric Herman said...

Ah, I don't know... I think some people are successful about creating music that both kids and parents can appreciate, but I think the problem is when the focus is sooooo much on making sure the parents are happy, because then you might just be tuning out the kids, to some extent, at least.

I certainly don't mean to imply that I don't think kids will like this, though... I'm sure some do, particularly some of the songs, and they're probably a lot of fun for kids in their live shows. But I thought it was strange how my girls reacted to it and worth mentioning. One time that I put it on Becca said something like, "Can we listen to some of my music?" Meaning anything else that she's come to know as music meant for her. And by that time she had heard that CD a couple times already, but just didn't have any connection or sense that it was meant for her. That sort of confirmed the feeling I had about it, that it was cool music, but not necessarily all that great for kids.

Stefan said...

"Sing for the kids or sing for the parents, but you can't really do both that well."

Phil, I do disagree with that -- I think it's possible to entertain both crowds.

Eric's touched on this before, but I think it's more of a sin in the press release of many artists than the actual attitude.

I suspect that their stage show plays a much larger role in how kids respond than many other artists' shows.

Anonymous said...

What? According to The Sippy Cups on their MySpace site, their music is "better than any kid's music you have ever heard, or will ever hear".