Saturday, December 15, 2007

A video by Becca

My daughter, Becca, has always been very artistically inclined, and recently she has wanted to learn about doing animation like she sees on her favorite TV shows and movies. We found a cool program called Flip Boom that is meant for kids to easily create simple animations. She took to that program in a big way and when we asked if she might like to do a music video for Daddy she was very excited and went right to work.

So anyway, here is a video for "Dance Like an Animal", with animations by Becca. She had a little bit of help and direction from her Mommy (who also did the disco background and put everything together with me in the video editing program), but by and large, this is Becca's work. Give her another year or two and she might be working for Pixar. :o)

Speaking of kids' music animations, coming up soon I'll be featuring one of Becca's favorite animation influences... Gustafer Yellowgold.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Wiggles: Getting Strong and Wiggly Wiggly World

If you've followed this blog at all, you'll know that I am an unabashed fan of The Wiggles. Musically speaking, I think they're terrific, with many great songs that introduce young kids to a variety of music styles. Say what you will about them otherwise, but they can really deliver the goods when it comes to their songs being memorable and fun for younger children, and I believe that they have rightfully achieved their enormous success as children's entertainers.

The Wiggles have always primarily been a visual band, what with the colored shirt thing and all, and so they have usually emphasized video releases over CD releases. Their latest is a DVD called Getting Strong, which is unique in two ways; it is the first from a planned Wiggle and Learn series that has a particularly educational focus, and it is also the first with the new yellow Wiggle, Sam.

I'm not going to speak too much about the video's merits... I want to focus on the music... but it definitely has the best production values of any Wiggles video I've seen. Top notch effects and sets and it looks really sharp, which hasn't always been the case with other Wiggles videos (not that they've suffered for it, but you kind of expect more from them,
considering their success). Some of the between song skits, such as the recurring theme of Captain Feathersword pretending to be among a group of trumpeters or guitarists or ballet dancers are okay and some are a bit tedious. Paul Paddock (Captain F.) has an amazing vocal range and ability to do impressions, but the high-pitched squeals of his guitar impressions (I honestly don't know how he gets up there without helium) can wear a bit on the ears of adults. But that's nothing new for Wiggles videos... their skits and between song interludes have never been the greatest at appealing to adults, no doubt. But little kids laugh at them and enjoy them alright, so that's fine.

Educationally speaking, they are clearly targeting toddlers (their bread and butter audience) with subjects that include exercise and sports ("Getting Strong", "The Sporting Salsa"),
comparative use of language ("The Biggest of All") and the five senses ("The Five Sense" and the oddly infectious "Smell Your Way Through the Day"). Perhaps it is the educational theme, but it seems that the songs have much more of a "sing songy" feel to them than previous Wiggles collections. They're not bad, as sing-songy songs go, but a lot of my favorite Wiggles songs have a little bit of rock 'n' roll to them and for the most part, these tunes don't really go there. Notable exceptions include the great title track, which is reminiscent of The Who's "I Can See for Miles and Miles", and "Sporting Salsa", which has a cool sound with a bit of a Miami Sound Machine groove to the chorus. "Smell Your Way Through the Day" has a rock feel to it and is very catchy, but it's also kind of kooky in a way.

So I'm not sure if Getting Strong is likely to convince any of the adults who grumble about the Wiggles to realize that they do have a lot of great music (see my review below about Wiggly Wiggly World for an example of that), but it's a solid collection for the kids and
answers any doubts as to whether Sam could make a good replacement for the ailing Greg. Greg always had a really smooth and unique vocal delivery, and thankfully Sam doesn't try to emulate that, but offers his own voice, which is more polished and even somewhat operatic at times, but is still a really good fit for the group's music.

The Wiggles website

Watch the "Getting Strong" video

The "Frog Went a Walking" video can be seen here, temporarily, at least.


Wiggly Wiggly World

In my original feature on The Wiggles, I said how their various video collections were kind of hit-and-miss for me. They've put out quite a few by now, and so as we've borrowed different ones from the library, we've seen some that were top notch and had a lot of great songs and others that seemed kind of thrown together. Until this past summer, we had only owned two Wiggles videos that we particularly liked, but I gave Wiggly Wiggly World a blind chance when I saw it at a library sale for a few bucks. I'm glad I did, because I think it's a terrific collection of songs, and it's particularly nice if you don't like the aforementioned skits and interludes, because they go right from one song to another, only stopping briefly to introduce a guest performer to set up the next song. And though The Wiggles can hold their own, musically, and in terms of songwriting, as evidenced by the hooks on songs like "In the Wiggles World" and "In the Big Red Car We Like to Ride", the guest performers really add a lot to this particular video.

Opera singer Kamahl performs on "Sing With Me", and it's amusing to hear his thick, profundo voice singing lines that include "Dorothy the Dinosaur", but it's quite a beautiful song, regardless. In terms of catchy pop-rock melodies and hooks, you can't beat The Wiggles' version of "Six Months in a Leaky Boat" by Tim Finn of Crowded House and Split Enz. And the gorgeous ballad "Taba Naba", performed by Greg and Christine Anu, is particularly stunning, and I love to hear my 2 year-old, Evee, attempting to sing that one. It's all in the language of the Torres Strait Islanders, and here are the real words: "Taba naba, naba norem, tugi penai siri, dinghy e naba we". As you can imagine, it comes out quite different when Evee sings it! There's also Rolf Harris playing the wobbleboard along with his classic "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" and Australian country star Slim Dusty joining in for "I Love to Have a Dance with Dorothy".

Other highlights on the video include "Another Cuppa", which has one of the best uses of counterpoint I've heard outside of musical theater, the folky "One Little Coyote", with it's cute backing vocals ("come home shooooon"), and the pretty Japanese ballad "Haru Ga Kita", sung with Atsuko Arai. All together, Wiggly Wiggly World is quite a smorgasbord of multi-cultural music, but it all sounds great with The Wiggles renditions and arrangements.

Listen to samples from Wiggly Wiggly World

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sugar Free Allstars

The organ is an instrument that can run the gamut from sounding really cool (think Booker T or Greg Allman or Ray Charles) to sounding really cheesy (think soap opera music or anything played on a cheap Casio). I suppose most instruments can be cool or cheesy, depending on how they're played or what kind of music they're played with, but it's much harder to not look cool, at least, when playing something like an electric guitar or a saxophone. Then again, some musicians like Ray Manzarek could make even the cheesiest sounding soap opera organ be cool in its context on the Doors' records. Weighing in on the very cool end of organ playing is Chris Wiser, one half of the duo that comprises the Sugar Free Allstars, who have released their first kids' album, Dos Niños.

It's an unusual mix, to be sure, with the core sound consisting of organ, another organ, bass and drums (by Rob "Dr. Rock" Martin). I'm not sure how they pull it off... I'm pretty sure from the picture that Wiser only has two hands, though he might have a couple of mutant arms hidden around his back... but it sounds fantastic, regardless.

It's a short album, with only eight songs, but they're all good to great tracks and show off a surprising variety and a lot of musical depth. "Bathtub Boy" starts things off with a discordant organ chord that is offset nicely by a very active vocal melody and some cute lyric lines like, "I'd rather soak in the tub 'til my skins gets so pruney, and all of my friends, thinkin' that I'm loony". "He's Okay (The Spider Song)" has a very Doorsy riff in the verses and then has a Soundgarden/Nirvana chorus. It's cool to hear that kind of thing done so well with organ as opposed to the usual grungy guitar. There's also a fun envelope filter solo that evokes images of a spider slinking along a wall.

Next up is "Poppy and MeeMaw", which has a funky Allman Brothers meets Sly and the Family Stone groove and a very catchy chorus, a la Anthony Keidis, where Wiser rhymes "MeeMaw" and "seesaw" with what else, but "Hee-Haw". "Petting Zoo" has that Supertrampy (er, maybe "Supertramp-esque" would be better) Wurlizter electric organ sound (also think of "My Best Friend" by Queen) and accordingly continues with a thick 70's feel throughout, complete with a cheesy jazz chord ending. The tune has a great transition between the verses and choruses and like the other tracks is very memorable.

"P. Kitty" (live video below) is a super funky tune which would probably be at home on a Chili Peppers or Funkadelic record (who says funk bands can't play children's music?). Again, some of the organ chords are of a weirdly dissonant variety, so the music might sound a little strange on its own, but the vocal line is greatly accessible and it all works very well together. "Banana Pudding" is practically a Deep Purple style parody, with Dr. Rock dispensing some funky drum medicine and Wiser rockin' on the thick Hammond.

"Stinky" is a one-word instrumental that isn't nearly as memorable or fun sounding as something like "Tequila", but the word choice of "stinky" is the perfect choice for a kids thing (and, of course, a whole lot better than "tequila"). The CD ends with the track, "Buck Up, Little Camper", which is a marked departure from the rest of the album into Monty Python territory, a la "The Universe Song" or "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life". It's obviously campy and tongue-in-cheek with its "don't sweat the small stuff" message, and I'm guessing that the cruel irony for the band is that this is probably one of the most popular songs with kids and parents, because of its simple, cheery message. The folky piano style melds into a big band ending, where Wiser does a Louis Armstrong impression, which ends up sounding more like an impression of Bill Cosby doing an impression
of Louis Armstrong. Fun stuff.

A quick side note about the album cover, which is strange and disturbing... the kind of thing that you wouldn't want to get in the mail unless you knew all of your kids were home and accounted for, and even then, you'd probably want to notify the police and have them dust the envelope for prints. I don't quite know what to make of it, but whatever...

All in all, this is an awesome album, though I suspect it may have some of the same effect as The Sippy Cups' Electric Storyland, where it's really great for adults but not necessarily quite as great for kids, depending on the kid. My kids' musician blogging friend Yosi mentioned on his blog about how he tried to get his kids to love this album but they just said, "It's weird." He felt like they really should like it and that he should maybe even try to force them to like it, as if it is akin to the cod liver oil your mother used to give you when you were sick (well, maybe your mother did, but thankfully mine didn't)... You don't want to take it, but it's good for you, so just swallow it, already!

I think that's a faulty premise, because although we can certainly try to encourage an appreciation for music to our kids, I don't think we can ever really instill an appreciation for particular music to them. And even if they grow to appreciate a certain kind of music, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll ever really love it. For example, I had no interest in my father's kind of music (big band, Sinatra, etc.) when I was growing up, and though I can appreciate it now and enjoy a lot of those classic tunes, it's still not what I would remotely consider my favorite kind of music. People like what they like, and though some of the uber-hipster parents may groan at the oh so horrible taste of three year-old kids, I suspect that many of them would still choose things like The Wiggles or Barney over The Sippy Cups and Sugar Free All Stars in a blind taste test. It's just a matter of kids' sensibilities.

That being said, my girls like this album okay, and dance around a little bit when it's on, but we do have to encourage them to do so and they're not listening closely, so we have to explain how it's a funny song about a kid who takes baths, or about a petting zoo, etc. There's not an automatic or instinctive feeling that it's meant for them when they hear the music, which I think is much more of the case with artists like Ralph's World and Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang. And if I had to put my finger on one thing that might help or hurt when trying to achieve that, it would be how prominent the vocals are in the mix. They seem to be mixed a bit low on this album and Wiser's vocal melodies are often very active, so if a kid can't understand the words well enough to tell that a song is talking about something they might care about, then they're probably not as likely to have a really big connection with it.

But even if your kids might think that this album is weird, it's a really cool album, regardless, and it would certainly be worth trying out on them. If they don't like it now, wait a year or two and maybe they'll enjoy it then. And like Electric Storyland, even though I can't share it quite as well with my kids as some other CDs, Dos Niños has definitely gone into my list of personal favorites.

Sugar Free All Stars website

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Halloween Green Bean

Ah, there's nothing quite like the purest form of kids' music, meaning music that kids' themselves create. It's strange and bizarre and sometimes totally nonsensical, but also brilliant and creative in cool ways.

Two years ago for Halloween, my Becca wrote this song: "Halloween Green Bean" (mp3) Her mommy helped her just a little bit with the phrasing for one of the lyric lines, and I arranged the music, but it was essentially very much her own creation.

In case you can't quite understand the lyrics, here they are:

I wanna be a Halloween green bean.
I wanna be a Halloween bear.
I wanna be a Halloween monster,
so I can give you a scare. Boo!

Not bad for a three year-old. :o)

Becca is five now and she's written a few other songs, including a melodic epic called "The Sun Goes Up", which has some beautiful lyric verses balanced by some really kooky lyric verses...

The sun goes up, and the moon goes down.
The stars go down and the dark goes down.
The apple says, "Hi". And we eat the apple.
There's a freckle on my arm. There's a freckle on my leg.

I totally didn't see the apple/freckle lines coming. And that's kind of how it is with all of her songs... Wonderfully weird, with some unexpected turns. She's also been noodling a lot on the piano and coming up with several little riffs that she likes to play over and over. She has descriptions for each of them, too, like the spooky sounding one, which is apparently supposed to be the soundtrack for a movie she wants to make about circlemonsters. And her sister, Evee, is following right along in her path, banging away on the piano and drums and belting out her favorite songs.

People often ask me if my material is inspired by my kids... Certainly, some of it is, but before long I might be able to just have them create all of my material, themselves!

Pictured above... Evee and Becca with their pumpkins for this year, which they designed themselves (we did the carving).

Have a safe and happy Halloween!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Thirteen for Halloween

With Halloween coming up, I thought I should gather all of the Halloween themed kids' CDs I've received since starting this blog and do a collective plug for them. Then I realized, um, wait a minute... I've only received one Halloween CD that I can recall. So that means that M. Ryan Taylor's Thirteen for Halloween gets all the attention, and deservedly so, because it's quite a nice collection of spooky Halloween tunes.

There have been a number of good Halloween songs by many different kids' artists, including Ralph's World, Monty Harper, The Hipwaders, etc. (here's a list that Stefan from Zooglobble and Bill from Spare the Rock compiled last year), and a great compilation CD could certainly be made from them. But many of those songs, fun as they are, are really just the same kind of pop/rock/folk as their creators' normal work, with a bit of spookiness or Halloween flavor added on top. And that's certainly to be expected, and the same thing would probably be said for my song, "The Cruelest Lullaby", a Halloween themed lullaby which is available as a bonus download from my Snail's Pace CD.

But what I love about M. Ryan Taylor's Thirteen for Halloween CD is that it is really its own thing, and it has a perfect sense of the creepy kind of atmosphere that really screams (and shrieks) Halloween. Of course, Halloween can encompass the goofy and funny as well as the genuinely spooky and macabre, and normally I'm all for goofy and funny stuff, but it's almost as though the genuinely creepy kind of Halloween songs have gotten short shrift lately. I suppose that the most famous Halloween song of all-time, "Monster Mash", kind of set the standard for the novelty/goofy and pop/rock aspect of Halloween songs, but for me growing up, Halloween was also about the Horror Sounds of the Night kinds of records, and it's nice to hear a new album of Halloween songs that is a bit more frightening in nature, while not being gory or gross or demonic or anything like that.

The album begins with the beautifully scary "Welcome, said the Spider", with its deliciously creaky doors, jangling harpshichord and chilling vocals. M. Ryan employs his operatic vocal range to great effect throughout the CD, ranging from the softly mysterious to the powerfully ominous, as on the Phantom of the Opera style organ song, "Three Little Ghostesses", or the wonderfully string-laden "Old Witch, Old Witch". The vocal effects, sound effects and arrangements are very nicely done throughout; creative and varied and not always what you expect, but also not overblown. He even finds a way to use a jaw harp in a spooky way on the mummy song, "We're Back". I gotta tell ya, that ain't easy...

Some of the songs are reworkings of traditional tunes like "Mactavish is Dead" and many are originals (including "We're Back", "Welcome, said the Spider" and the pirate counterpoint number, "The Ghost Ship"), or folk songs with original lyrics and arrangements. There are a few bonafide startles and there is a very authentically nail-biting atmosphere throughout the CD, so some parental discretion is advised as far as who should listen.

Now that he's tackled one of the major holidays so well, I'd like to see what M. Ryan Taylor can do with other major holidays, like National Chocolate-Covered Anything Day (Dec. 16) or Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day (Jan. 29). I'm sure he's hard at work on those as we speak.

Thirteen for Halloween website

Thirteen for Halloween on iTunes

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

World of Warcraft meets "The Elephant Song"?

It's been about four years now since my first kids' CD came out. I'm grateful that it was received so well (it's hard to say for sure if I'd still be doing this if that was a flop), but I never would have imagined that one of the tracks, which was the first real kids' song I ever wrote, "The Elephant Song", would still be going strong years later.

I've had many people tell me how their family has adapted "The Elephant Song" in some way... a clothes version, a food version, a toy version, etc. I performed my own Halloween version ("Vampires, I like vampires", etc.) at an event last year. We've got The Elephant Book in the works, and there's been the new recording featuring my girls on my recent Snail's Pace CD. And we might still do a new version of the video at some point (the video as it is was only ever supposed to be a demo). It's been really nice that so many people have appreciated that song so much, and it's sort of taken on a life of its own.

For example, nothing could have prepared me for the tip off I received this morning about the video above, made by Meeko of Hakkar. Wow! Or should I say "WoW"? It's definitely a unique interpretation, and I had to laugh out loud at some parts, like where I say, "They don't? Well, what am I thinking of?" and at the end where the minotaur scratches his bottom and then bursts into tears. Okay, the donkey is a horse, but you gotta give him credit because you can tell he put a lot of work into it and it was a very funny idea.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Booking a Tour for 2008

If you ever wonder how an independent children's music performer books a tour... well... so do I. :o)

In my experience over the past few years doing this full-time, a lot of the more substantial trips have been built around whatever comes up first. For example, two years ago a school in Utah wanted me to come and perform there. They couldn't fly me in so it wasn't really practical to go all the way there just for that one school. But I took a chance and booked the assembly anyway, and then thankfully was able to hook up with another 20 gigs or so in the same general area (or on the way there and back) to correspond with that time frame. It was definitely worth the effort and most of those places have since asked me back, but it was quite a lot of work to coordinate all of that in the first place.

Well, thinking back on that, it feels like a piece of cake compared to what I'm looking at right now. Back in 2006, I was booked in advance for several libraries in the Baton Rouge area for June of 2008. I knew the day was coming when Roseann and I would have to plan for that trip and plot a course there and back. That day has come... The good news is that I've had a number of inquiries from schools and other events in places like L.A., San Diego, Kansas City, Phoenix and elsewhere, so we have a bit of a head start to include those places in the path for this trip. The bad news is, well, gosh, it's an enormous amount of area and population to cover. It will no doubt be an incredible amount of e-mailing, phone calling, postcard mailing, faxing and other means of contacting people in these areas.

So to answer the original question about how an independent children's musician books a tour (at least this independent children's musician, for this tour)... he asks for help.

I know there are a lot of people who read this blog who have kids in elementary school, and there might even be a few who know booking agents in some of these areas. If you live in or near the target areas (see below) and have any contacts at elementary schools, libraries, day cares, parks & recreation departments, churches, corporate events, festivals, fairs, etc., please let me know and let your contacts there know that I'll be coming through. Any contacts you can share with me or plugs you can pass on will be very much appreciated. There are printable PDF flyers at this page with some basic information about what I offer. They can be passed on to your school's principal or PTA/PTO members or to your local children's librarian or to your parks department's event coordinator, etc.

Here is the list of target dates and areas (subject to a little bit of adjustment):

Seattle: March 24-27

Portland: March 29 - April 1

Medford/Redding: April 4-5

Bay Area: April 9-15

L.A./San Diego: April 18-25

Las Vegas: April 29 - May 2

Phoenix/Tucson: May 6-10

El Paso: May 14-16

San Antonio/Austin: May 21-23

Houston: May 27-30

Baton Rouge: June 2-19 (already booked for several shows)

Dallas: June 21-25

Oklahoma City/Tulsa: June 27-28

Branson/Springfield: June 29 - July 6

Kansas City: July 8-11

Colorado Springs: July 15-18

Denver: July 19-23

Salt Lake City: July 26-31

Ogden/Logan: August 1-2

Boise: August 5-6

Tri-Cities, WA: August 7

Seattle, Portland, Spokane, Boise, Tri-Cities, etc.: The rest of August and September

If you have any inquiries or information to share, please contact me. I'll be glad to send out promo materials as needed.

It's also helpful to know if anyone can offer us a safe place to park our RV for the night in any of those areas. And if so, your kids might end up getting an impromptu Eric Herman concert in your living room.

Thanks so much,

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Hipwaders: Educated Kid

The Hipwaders are one of the best kid rock bands to emerge in recent years, and their latest CD is called Educated Kid.

In my previous feature about The Hipwaders, I mentioned how much I liked the songs on their debut CD, but that their influences often seemed too obvious, so that it sometimes sounded like a Beatles tribute band performing original kids' songs. Thankfully, on Educated Kid, the band seems to have largely shed the need to wear their influences so prominently and are sounding more like a very unique band that blends a variety of sounds and musical approaches with clever lyrics and stories. There are still some sound-alike parts here and there; the
"baa baa" sections of "Little Baby Brother" and "You've Got to Move" that sound a lot like "Let's Spend the Night Together" as if sung by The Monkees; and the Proclaimers joined by John Mellencamp "uh huh, uh huh, uh huh" of the title track. But even in those cases, the integration into the songs is more transparent than it seemed on their first album.

Speaking of the title track, wow, it's absolutely incredible. A really cool tremolo guitar riff, a great verse leading to a greater pre-chorus leading to a perfect hook, and a poignant message about how your education, no matter how or where you get it (clown college, beauty school, home school, researching on your own, etc.), can help you to achieve great things in life. It doesn't get much better than this in kids' music, and Tito Uquillas and Co. have definitely got their biggest hit so far with this song.

With the "Educated Kid" song as great as it is, it's a tough act to follow for the rest of the album. After a few listens through the whole CD, the other songs haven't grabbed me as well as that title track, or as well as some of the songs on their first CD (regardless of the sound-alike thing), but it's hard to compare the other songs fairly with "Educated Kid" on there. There's a whole lot to love on this album, to be sure, and without the benchmark of the title track, I'm sure the other songs would stand perfectly well on their own.
Other favorite tracks of mine include the chunky reggae of "You've Got to Move", the frenzied rock of "Art Car", featuring some awesome drumming by Nick Baca (see video below), and the spacey trip through the ages of the Earth called "The History of Declan Rae".

Befitting the title, The Hipwaders seem to have skewed more heavily toward educational subjects on this disc, and the obvious comparisons will be to Schoolhouse Rock! But it can be very difficult to craft an informative message about things like paleontology, geometry or the Dewey Decimal System into a memorable and captivating song. On Educated Kid, sometimes the attempts work really well and sometimes they don't quite. "Dewey Decimal System", for example, kind of meanders through several different musical stages, so for the most part I would put it into the "doesn't quite work" category. But then it does score some big points for the funky part where the title is repeated. Give the words "Dewey Decimal System" to a hundred different songwriters and I doubt any could make them sound as cool as Tito did with that chorus. So with this type of material, I don't think they've yet reached the level of accessibility and "all-time classic" feel as Schoolhouse Rock!, but they're certainly in the right neighborhood and show terrific potential to create a cool new brand of educational songs in addition to the other fun songs in their catalog.

Overall, Educated Kid continues to highlight what an incredibly creative and tight band The Hipwaders are and what a fantastic voice for kids' music Tito Uquillas has, both as a singer and a songwriter. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go play that title track about ten more times... Oh, yeah... I'm just an educated kid... uh huh, uh huh, uh huh...

Buy Educated Kid and hear more samples.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Glenn Colton

When I first decided to make the plunge into doing music for kids back when I lived in Buffalo, people from the area kept telling me, "Oh, you mean like Glenn Colton?" or "Oh, you should go see Glenn Colton." Recently, a musician I know from Buffalo named Matt Suroweic contacted me to ask some advice about his own foray into doing music for kids, and so of course I had to say, "Go see Glenn Colton!"

Suffice it to say that Glenn Colton is without a doubt the first name in children's music in the greater Western New York area. A quick scan of his schedule and you can see how popular he is as a performer, and many of the venues where he performs have him back year after year after year. That's not surprising, as
Glenn writes very memorable songs for kids and performs them in very interactive and involving shows that are a lot of fun, and he provides a wide variety of school assembly programs that cater very well to what a lot of schools want to offer for their students.

After heeding the advice of those who said to me, "Go see Glenn Colton," I went to one of his park concerts and one of his school assemblies, and was inspired by how well a one-man-band performer could entertain a large group of kids. I had one of those "that's what I'd like to do with my life!" kind of feelings (not a moment too soon, considering I was about 33 at the time). Glenn made it look so easy and fun (of course, I hadn't seen the many years of experience he already had up to that point) and his use of conga lines, limbo sticks and other various props and jokes was also inspiring for the kind of fun shows I wanted to offer kids and families. If you saw a show with me and Glenn on a bill together (hopefully we'll put that together sometime when I'm out in Western New York again), you would probably notice a difference in some of the styles of material and humor that we each employ, and yet, you might also recognize that Glenn was a big influence on me as a children's performer, and so I would expect that you might find both shows to be highly entertaining and fun in their own unique ways.

When I first met him, Glenn was generous about sharing some tips to get me going in the right direction, and I really appreciated that. We've been friends ever since, and so when I was back in Buffalo recently, I thought, why not do an interview with him, since I've been meaning to feature him here at some point? Glenn invited me over and he shared a lot of great insights into his musical approach and how he's achieved and maintained his success performing music for children. The interview is split up into two parts below...

Glenn Colton website

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Interview on Saints & Spinners

Alkelda the Gleeful has 1) a really cool nickname 2) a really great family, which she affectionately calls The House of Glee 3) a really funny song called "Superhero Tea Party" 4) many wonderful stories, story ideas and thoughts about performing as a children's storyteller that she shares on 5) a really great blog called Saints and Spinners, which today features an interview with a guy named Eric Herman.

My own "RV of Silliness" got to meet The House of Glee at a show of mine near Seattle this summer, and we really enjoyed sharing some tasty ice cream and good conversation with them afterward. Her blog has become a favorite of mine and I'm always eager to click the link when I see a new post from there pop up on my Google Reader. I want to thank Alkelda for sharing her time and talents with us all, and for not digging out too many skeletons in her interview with me. We hope to see her perform sometime when we're out that way again.

Monday, August 27, 2007


Scribblemonster is a super-cool kids' band from the Chicago area. In my article about John Hadfield, I mentioned how his music seemed to have a sharp dichotomy between two different styles. Well, Scribblemonster performs several different styles of music, but they seem to have an even more dramatic distinction when it comes to the overall sound they have. The first two songs on their second album, Chocolate Milk, are a perfect demonstration of that.

The first song, the title track, is a power chord anthem which almost seems like a style parody of Joan Jett's "I Love Rock and Roll". Jumping right out at you through the speakers is the voice of ScribbleMonster, which is indeed very "monstery", sounding something like Dave Mustaine, Harvey Fierstein and MacGruff the Crime Dog if they all gargled with turpentine. It probably is a bit scary of a voice for the youngest or most timid of kids, but then again, if you're putting on a CD called "Scribblemonster", you should probably expect a scary monster voice, and this certainly delivers that along with a heavy dose of crunchy distorted guitars.

You might think from the first track that this is going to be one of the only original heavy metal albums for kids, but then track 2 makes you wonder if maybe you actually bought a compilation CD and Scribblemonster only had the leadoff track. "Beautiful Day" is an upbeat acoustic pop tune with jangly guitars and the decidedly ungruff and quite beautiful voice of ScribbleKitty. This song is catchy and cool and well-written and performed, just like "Chocolate Milk", and yet couldn't be more different from that track unless it was an Indian raga performed with kazoos and featuring a chorus of peacocks (I've yet to hear a children's music act do that convincingly).

But the more you listen to Scribblemonster, the more you realize that those two very divergent sounds, and many more, are just part of the whole experience. So it was probably very wise sequencing to put those two tracks up front like that, so you didn't get too familiar with one voice before being presented with the other. But ScribbleMonster and ScribbleKitty are actually only two of the four Scribblemonster voices... There is also ScribblePiggy, who has a bit more of a bluesy tone to her, and ScribbleBunny, who is more of a cute little boy character. ScribbleMonster and ScribbleBunny are both voiced by James Dague, who also writes and produces most of the Scribblemonster material. I'm not sure how he pulls off performing the two different voices live, but I'd like to see him try. (ScribbleKitty is Joyce Stuart and ScribblePiggy is Jayne Saniat).

All together, the four characters make for an interesting group, and I love the way they interact throughout the very hooky songs. And Scribblemonster has several songs that cleverly leave room for kids to interact directly with the song. For example, on "The World's Greatest", each of the Scribbles sing a verse about what their character would like to be (i.e. "I'm gonna be the world's greatest dentist" or "greatest singer" or "greatest plumber"), and then they leave a verse with just the music, so that kids can sing about whatever they want to be. It's sort of like karaoke mad libs. On the song "I'm a... (Anything I Like)", they sing the first part of the line, but leave the end for the kids, such as, "I'm a box of... (???)". It's especially funny to hear ScribbleMonster singing the verse that goes, "I'm a girl named... (???)" This has become a fun game for us to play on the road, because you can make up just about anything. For example, my two year-old created this gem, "I'm stinky and I'm a foot." I don't know if James came up with the idea for this type of song, but I can't recall hearing this kind of thing before, and regardless, they do a really great job with these.

Throughout both of their albums, Scribblemonster has a terrific blend of melody, rhythm and subject matter that is perfect for kids. Their first album, Best of Friends, is a little rougher in terms of its production, but has just as many great songs as its successor, like "Wishin' Around", which has a wonderfully soaring melody; "A Monster Goes Rrrargh!", which has a monster going "rrrargh!" (see video below); and "Hooray!", which is one of those aforementioned "make up your own verse" songs.

Scribblemonster has also performed some notable guest appearances, including their popular track "I Wish I Lived in Michigan", which appears on Kevin Kammeraad's epic 49 track CD about the state of Michigan called A Curious Glimpse of Michigan, and backing Monty Harper on the title track of his Get a Clue album.

Scribblemonster website

Monday, August 20, 2007

Randy Newman

Randy Newman has had quite a varied and successful career as a singer-songwriter and film composer. He has won virtually every major award there is in the entertainment industry, including Oscars, Grammys and Emmys. In recent years, Randy has become even more well known for his songs in popular children's movies.

I use the term "children's movies" with some hesitation, because while Pixar's films are particularly geared toward children, I consider them among the finest movies of any type, and I'm 38. I can sit and watch any of the Pixar movies on my own, repeatedly, and thoroughly enjoy them.
When I was traveling on my own for about a week recently, and had a few hours free, I felt no hesitation whatsoever to go and see Ratatouille all by myself. My favorites, in particular, are Monsters Inc., Toy Story 1 & 2 and Finding Nemo, but I think they are all terrifically entertaining.

Toy Story started the ball rolling for Pixar's tremendous run of success, and Randy's songs and scoring are a big part of what helps to drive the story. Randy's songs are unassuming in their approach, usually with a basic pop arrangement and his uniquely twangy voice that can only be self-referenced. Randy Newman's voice sounds like... well, like Randy Newman. They are simply great songs, with a catchiness that belies their sophistication and melodies that are sublime and inspired. "You've Got a Friend in Me" is the signature song for the Toy Story films, and it welcomes you right into the world of Woody and Andy. It's a perfect hummable theme song with a heart, as Randy eloquently sings, "Some other folks might be a little bit smarter than I am, bigger and stronger, too. But none of them will ever love you the way I do. It's me and you, boy."

The next song in the film is the funky rock song, "Strange Things", where Woody is realizing how Buzz is taking some of Andy's attention away from Woody. I love that the film's producers chose Randy to create new songs specifically for the movie instead of just filling in a bunch of soundtrack songs and calling that a "score". Sometimes that kind of pop soundtrack can be just right for a movie, and certainly there are several songs that might have fit okay to underscore the general feeling there. But it's especially perfect to have Randy's specific lyrical descriptions like, "I was on top of the world, it was right in my pocket. I was livin' the life, things were just the way they should be. When from out of the sky like a bomb comes some little punk in a rocket. Now all of a sudden some strange things are happenin' to me."

The other song in Toy Story, "I Will Go Sailing No More", is later in the film when Buzz is realizing that he is indeed a toy, and it is a beautifully dramatic and dynamic piece tha
t reminds me of some of the achingly powerful Roger Waters tracks on The Wall. Each of the three songs on Toy Story couldn't be more different from each other, and yet each is brilliant and perfect for what it is and for what it is supposed to be achieving in the film.

There is only one new Randy Newman song in Toy Story 2 ("You've Got a Friend in Me" is reprised a couple of times), but boy, is it a doozy. "When She Loved Me", sung wonderfully by Sarah McLachlan, is so touchingly sad it makes you want to weep for the plight of forgotten toys everywhere. McLachlan, known for her breathy pseudo-yodeling vocals, was a perfect choice to give voice to the memory of Jessie, the Yodeling Cowgirl, and Newman's melody and arrangement in this song is truly stirring. Newman actually won his Oscar (after 13 nominations) for the fun jazzy pop tune "I Wouldn't Have Nothing if I Didn't Have You" from Monsters, Inc., but my feeling is that he deserved it more for "When She Loved Me".

Other songs Randy composed for children's movies include the songs for the great version of Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach, "That'll Do" from Babe: Pig in the City, and "Our Town", which James Taylor plaintively sang (as he does so well) in Cars. Pixar is scheduled to release Toy Story 3 in 2010, presumably with Randy Newman doing the music again, though his involvement hasn't been confirmed for that yet. He is definitely doing songs and music for Disney's much-touted return to traditional 2D animation with "The Frog Princess" in 2009.

Randy Newman website

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Roseann Endres

I ended my recent article about Robbi K by saying, "A husband and wife producing children's music together... How about that?!" I was making a wink smile kind of comment about my wife and I producing my kids' music, but I realize that it may have been a bit of an oblique reference for anyone who didn't know that.

Yes, my wife, Roseann, and I produce my kids' music together, and I realize that it's not just us and Robbi K and her husband, Bakithi... Gwendolyn and her husband, Brandon, produce the music for Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang, and I believe that Ellen and Matt (who I've been meaning to feature here at some point) also produce their music in addition to performing together. I'm sure there are other kid-music-producing couples, too. (Please let me know if I'm missing any.) And of course, there are many spouses out there who play an important role in the careers of their musical counterparts, though that may not specifically include the music production aspect.

But since I've mentioned Roseann, I wanted to give you a better glimpse at what exactly she does in respect to my musical career. I get all of the applause at my concerts and most of the accolades for the CDs, but I would like to applaud her for all of her efforts and talents behind the scenes. You might get an interesting glimpse into the dynamics of a husband/wife entertainment team, and I might score some major love points with the Mrs., which never hurts!

If Roseann were applying for a job somewhere, and using her work with me as a reference, the list of her job functions could look something like this...

Producer, songwriter, copy writer, casting director, stage manager, musical director, marketing research, PR manager, business relations, video producer, child psychology and development research, video director, camera operator, child wrangler, costume designer, mascot performer, puppeteer, business adviser, artistic adviser, performance adviser, promoter, agent, networking, event planning, graphic artist, mechanic, electrician, handyman, talent coordinator, assistant to the artist, cashier, retail sales, quality control supervisor, performer, vocalist, business founder, entrepreneur, photographer, stylist, roadie, groupie, navigator, image consultant, operations manager, physical therapist, first-aid caregiver, nutritionist, human resources, sounding board, development team, muse, ego booster, ego leveler, backseat driver, map reader, relief driver, bargain hunter, customer service, billing/collections, legal adviser, set designer, comedy writer, temporary pickle jar opener (until my arm and finger injuries heal).

And then of course there are the all-important jobs of wife and mother.
Certainly there are more job descriptions that I could add for her, but that gives you some idea of the many things that she does. It would take too long to elaborate on all of those job descriptions, but I'd like to add a few notes about some of those aspects.

Producer: Roseann is definitely an equal partner in terms of the producing aspect of my music. We have similar tastes, but we also have some individual preferences that make for a good blend. We have some arguments now and then about certain things, but when that happens, we've found that it's usually a case of properly communicating what it is that we want or don't want (which isn't always easy to do), and then finding something that works better. We try not to just compromise when there is a difference of opinion, but to find another solution that makes the whole thing better for both of us.

A good example of that is the song "Ants in the Lunchroom" from Monkey Business, where I really liked the song as it was but Roseann kept insisting that it felt too "heavy". I felt like that early Rush meets Jethro Tull kind of sound was cartoonish in this case and worked well for the idea of the song. We butted heads for a while on whether the song should be on that album (and if we didn't get beyond that argument, it wouldn't have been included). But then I had the idea to add the ant voices as part of the recording. I did a basic demo of that and Roseann loved it and realized that it added the cartoonishness that she wasn't feeling before and took away the feeling of heaviness that she didn't like, without taking away the heaviness that I did like. Roseann actually scripted most of the ant parts for the final recordings that she and Kenn Nesbitt performed, and we both ended up liking that song a lot better the way it turned out, and that track became a favorite for many kids from that album. We have had a lot of similar experiences while producing our albums, where there's usually something better to be gained from whatever conflict there might be.

Roseann is also a great producer when it comes to knowing when to say things like, "This song needs more cowbell!" or "Why on Earth are you using cowbell on this song?!" She has a great ear for pitch and instrumental balance and a terrific feel for what kids will respond to, or not. She generously lets me be the mad scientist and go experiment with sounds and parts, but she is also able to give some great direction and offer many creative ideas of her own, which often helps to complete the songs. I don't recall Roseann contributing too much to the writing of "Blackbeard, Bluebeard and Redbeard", but she was a big part of producing how the recording turned out, such as getting together the intro/outro parts with the big kid's interjections with the narrator, which I think added a lot to the self-deprecating nature of that track.

Another very significant production contribution Roseann had was to use just one really cute sounding little girl (who she found in her capacity as "casting director") as my audience for the recording of "The Elephant Song". I kept thinking we should use a live version or to bring in a throng of kids to respond together, to capture some of the frenzied and insistent responses that the song elicits in a live setting. But she felt that for the CD, it would be best to have a more controlled focus, because she wanted to feature the song better and she also felt that while a parent at a concert might laugh and enjoy watching their kid go bonkers, on an audio recording with a group of kids, that could be grating. Roseann was also instrumental (in her capacity as a "child wrangler") in getting Meghan, the girl who did the recording, to deliver a terrific performance that would be received well.

A quick mention here that Roseann the video director and graphic artist also designed the video for "The Elephant Song". It was originally meant to be nothing more than a demo, so she threw some pictures together on the MS Paint program, with the help of our daughter, Becca, to show me how it might work. But once we put it all together, we decided to show the "demo" to some other people and it took off from there, though she's still a little embarrassed that her initial rough sketch drawings are what is being seen around the world.

Songwriter: I give Roseann co-writing credit on all of my songs, because there is often something specific that she's added to every song. That may be minimal for some songs, such as, "That phrase needs to be reworded... How about this, instead?" or "How about a different chord there?", but there are also several songs where we've worked very closely together and her contribution has been very significant, and those have turned out to be some of my most popular, including "There's a Monster in My House", "The Elephant Song", "Bounce and Flap and Twist", "Cowboy Bergaleoukaleopaleous" and "No Big Deal".

Performer: Roseann has performed the following parts on my albums... The "Awww!" on "In the Box"; monkey sounds on "The Monkeys"; the parrot on "Blackbeard, Bluebeard and Redbeard"; backing vocals on "Crazy Over Vegetables" (which she also arranged); the mother on "I Am a Robot"; the legal speak on "Prune Juice"; some of the ant parts on "Ants in the Lunchroom" (Kenn Nesbitt did most of them); the mother in "Cowboy Bergaleoukaleopaleous"; co-lead vocals on "Steve the Superhero".

Stage manager/performance adviser: Roseann has been crucial over the last several years as an observer at my live shows, to help me improve as a performer and fine-tune my shows to be the most entertaining experience they can be, which can vary quite a bit depending on the audience, the venue and the particular circumstances of the event. Sometimes it feels a little disheartening when I feel like I just had a terrific show and then she tells me afterward about something I said or did that didn't work so well or could have been better, but I have learned to graciously accept her notes and use them to do better next time. Conversely, once in a while I feel like a show didn't go so well, but she might tell me about some things that I didn't observe that were very well received.

On rare occasions, she might even come up and give me an instruction during a show which is helpful to get things going in a better direction, or to keep things going in the right direction. For example, at a recent show I wasn't aware that most of my audience were European immigrants and weren't English-speaking, and so when I was getting a little frustrated that I had little reaction from the kids early on, she sensed that and told me about it after she found that out from the sound guy. And so for the rest of that show, doing more physical/dancing songs went over much better than the story/joke songs had early on. Roseann has some background in early childhood development and child psychology and experience working with special needs kids and has observed a lot from that which she has brought to our involvement with entertaining children.


I could go on and on about the specific things that Roseann has done and continues to do on a daily basis to help me do what I do, but this has probably been long enough.
Hopefully I've scored enough bonus points with her already. Suffice to say that I'm incredibly grateful to be married to such a wonderful woman and to be able to work together with her and for the life and the love that we share. Also, as I talked about in this article about how I got into kids' music, I probably wouldn't be doing this at all if it weren't for Roseann's faith in me and encouragement, and I'm particularly grateful for that.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Eric Herman and the Injurable Hand

It hasn't been the best year for personal safety...

First, the broken arm, and then last week I cut a nice chunk out of the tip of my middle finger with a shaving razor.

I know what you're probably thinking... Eric, you're not supposed to shave your fingers. But it's just that every night when the moon comes out, they get really hairy, and... Well, actually I was rummaging through a bin on the top shelf of our bathroom closet in the RV and there was a razor in there with the safety cap missing. That'll teach me to leave safety caps off and to go rummaging through uncharted bins.

Fortunately, the gouge is over on the side of the fingertip and shouldn't affect my long-term guitar-playing. It's healing well and should be okay before too long, but it has made it difficult to play guitar at my recent shows. "The Elephant Song" just doesn't sound quite right with two-finger power chords. And there's a gesture that is created now when my hand is playing the guitar neck that, well... it's not the nicest thing for family shows, if you know what I mean.

So anyway, with the arm brace still on my right forearm and the finger splint on my left hand, I've decided not to sing any "safety" songs this year, for fear of looking hypocritical.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Robbi K

In her career, Robbi K has performed and recorded with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, Rod Stewart and Mary J. Blige, just to name a few. She's also performed on big-time TV shows like Oprah and David Letterman. She has quite an impressive resume, and with her amazing vocal talent and engaging personality and sense of humor, she could really do anything at all in the entertainment world. But Robbi was inspired by a children's theatre production in 1981 to make children the main focus of her musical talent, and the children of the world are very blessed for that choice of hers.

Robbi's latest album, her second CD for kids, is called Music Makes Me Happy, and it's an outstanding collection of songs for kids, covering a wide variety of styles including world, jazz, blues and gospel. Robbi sites Paul Simon's Graceland as a seminal album and influence for her. I would say exactly the same thing about Graceland's influence on me, and so it's interesting to me how different people can be influenced in very different ways by the same work of art. This is not to say that Robbi's music (or mine) sounds much at all like Graceland, but the idea of exploring and trying to be unique and creative with a variety of musical approaches is certainly prevalent throughout Music Makes Me Happy, and in that sense, I can definitely recognize that influence.

The CD begins with a fun percussion song as Robbi and a small group of kids "Feel Da Beat". "Summer's Here" is next and is a catchy calypso style song in the vein of "Under the Sea" from The Little Mermaid. "Eating Some Pizza" shows off some great kid singers describing what makes them shout "Hallelujah!", and I particularly love how the background singers sing the "hallelujah" phrase. This is a really cool track and my only complaint is that the kids singing are mixed a little too low to understand throughout. The kids they got to perform on this album are right on with their pitch and timing and the production showcases them well throughout the rest of the album, but I wish I could have heard them a little better on this track.

Robbi's take on "The Legend of John Henry" has an upbeat Motown feel, very reminiscent of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone". Next up is "Music is My Friend", which is probably the only track I didn't really enjoy on this album. I think that people make too much fun of the music from the 1970's, when there was actually quite a lot of great music happening then, but this reminds me of the kind of 70's songs that didn't endure very well. Musically, it's kind of catchy, so that's not the major issue, but lyrically it seems to include some forced and rather odd phrases, such as, "It can take down up. Fill an empty cup. Fill it with magic stuff." and "Music brings a charge, makes the small seem large. Rides you on a barge." Rides you on a barge?? A very strange choice for a lyric... Robbi didn't write this song, so I'm not going to hold it against her, but regardless, those kind of lyrics combined with the lite jazz pop of the music make the song a little difficult for me to warm up to. I like that this is yet another style that she is experimenting with, and I like the general message that music can be very uplifting to your spirit, but it just doesn't seem to measure up with the strength of the rest of the album for me. But to say that this is the only song I don't really care for is in itself quite a recommendation for this CD, as even some of my favorite albums have two or three tracks that I'm not all that crazy about.

"Favourite Things" is a swing jazz version of the song from The Sound of Music, and Robbi shows off some nice phrasing, for example, pausing in just the right way to make a line like "schnitzel with noodles" sound cool instead of hokey. The band is sizzling hot on this one, and the musical performances and Robbi's arrangements throughout the CD are terrific. My favorite tune, the "Got Me Laughing Blues", definitely got me laughing with some brutally honest examples of things that make Robbi laugh, including her brother's little butt and passing gas.
"Music Makes Me Happy" is an upbeat and joyous blues number (yes, blues can be that way!) and features several different people joining in to celebrate, including children's music artist Brady Rymer and blues legend Guy Davis.

"Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy! Happy!" begins with a Barney impersonation that seems to imply that the song will be a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but you could certainly take it at face value to be a musical depiction of the seesaw mood swings of a kids' life. I like the contrast between the happy and mad sections, and how they change into each other. The feel of the happy part reminds me of Vince Guaraldi playing piano for a polka band, and then the mad part has shades of things like Fiddler on the Roof and even Frank Zappa. It's an unusual combination, but somehow it works well and is a fun diversion.

"I Love My Teacher" (see the video below) has a chorus of kids (including Robbi's daughters DiDi and Mbali) singing in an old doo-wop style (with Bowzer from Sha Na Na appropriately guesting), doing a fitting tribute to teachers everywhere. I can remember idealizing a few of my teachers growing up, and I think this song speaks well to that kind of kids' perspective. A lot of kids, especially elementary aged kids, really do think of teachers as being in a different realm entirely, which is why it was always so weird when you happened to see your teacher at the supermarket. I'd think... What is Mr. Edholm doing here? I thought he lived at the school and studied science books all night?! And lines like "I'm so glad that I'm her child" made me realize that the kids could also be singing this to their parent or parents, who are certainly the most important of all the teachers in their lives (a relationship which is completely reciprocal, since kids teach us so much).

The final track is a beautiful medley called "The Peace Song", which is gloriously arranged with angelic voices and lush strings, as the Latin words for "Give us peace" are interspersed with references to classic gospel songs like "Amazing Grace", "His Eye is on the Sparrow" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands". Robbi's voice has such versatility throughout the album, strongly belting out jazz and blues and also showing much beauty and restraint on a track like this. All told, Music Makes Me Happy more than proves its title, providing an enlightening and entertaining experience through the joy and power of music.

I should mention that Music Makes Me Happy was co-produced by Robbi and her husband, Bakithi Kumalo (who also plays bass on the album and who has played bass for many years with Paul Simon. You know that famous bass solo on "You Can Call Me Al"? That was Bakithi.). The arrangements and instrumental performances are varied, colorful and altogether quite enjoyable, without ever getting in the way of Robbi's vocals, and the overall production is top-notch. There's no doubt that Bakithi and Robbi make a really great team. (A husband and wife producing children's music together... Hey, how about that?!)

Robbi K website

Thursday, August 02, 2007

John Hadfield

If I were a kid, John Hadfield would be someone who I would camp out overnight to buy tickets for. Well, that's probably not a good thing for kids to do... I mean, the camping part is fine, but waiting in line all night for concert tickets isn't typically the most wholesome activity. Then again, maybe you can talk your Scoutmaster into having the next Boy Scout campout in the parking lot in front of Ticketmaster instead of at Lake Wikihaha. Then it might be alright...

But do people even do that anymore... sleep out for concert tickets? I used to do that once in a while, but it got to the point where I'd tell a friend, "Dude, I slept out for Soundgarden tickets last night and got seats in the 10th row!" and then he'd be like, "I called in for tickets this morning and got 8th row." And it's probably even more like that now with internet ticket sales available. I'm not sure that the idea of sleeping out and forming a line at the ticket window is really much of a guarantee of the best seats anymore.

But anyway, John Hadfield... Yeah, he's like the performing equivalent of Elvis, David Copperfield, Steve Martin and Bozo the Clown. In his show he sings, cracks jokes, does magic tricks, walks on stilts, clowns, bakes pies, carves wood sculptures with chainsaws while juggling them... you name it. Well, maybe he doesn't quite do all of that, but it sure is a heck of a variety, and you can tell from his promo video (see below) that he does it all with great flair and creativity.

John Hadfield is another example of goofiness being alive and well in children's entertainment. His latest album, Robot Monkey Head, is full of goofy songs and silly noises and is altogether quite delightful. I can imagine some snooty kids' music aficionado somewhere pooh-poohing this kind of material, and I can only feel sad for their lack of humor and sense of kids' sensibilities when it comes to what really entertains them. As I said in the Barry Louis Polisar article, most kids will eat that goofy and silly stuff right up.

The opening title track is kind of weird as it describes John's earnest desire for a battery-powered, life-size, wireless robot monkey head. He patters the words over mysterious synthesized beats, reminding me of a cross between Oingo Boingo and Falco. There are some amusingly bizarre lines like, "You'd be my missing link. Your neck leaks when you drink," and "I'd tell you funny knock-knock jokes and demonstrate karate, but you could never punch or kick, 'cause you don't have a body." Clearly, John has tapped into the brains of kids and is giving them the kind of absurdist humor that they love to discover and are apt to repeat over and over.

Musically, John seems to have a dual personality. About half of the songs on Robot Monkey Head are in a style that is sort of 80's rock/pop/techno/synth oriented, and the other half are folky/bluegrass/acoustic in nature. He probably could have split them up, added a few more tracks of each kind, and made two entirely separate albums, and you might think they were made by two completely different artists. But sequenced as they are, going back and forth between one style or the other, you eventually get used to it and accept the dichotomy. And kids, of course, are able to change gears on a dime, so I can't imagine that being any problem for them.

Much as I love rock and various incarnations of that, my preference for this album is actually for the folkier songs. I think they are far more cohesive and enduring, with the synth rock songs sounding a bit dated and disjointed at times. But to say something sounds "dated" is another thing that's probably more relevant to adults... kids won't necessarily have the same frame of reference to think, oh that's so (insert year here).

The first of the folky tunes is "Uncle Tony's Dentures", with a knee-slapping country hook and a funny story about where those dang teeth could've got to. "I Like Beans" is next and has a great "Shaving Cream" misdirection, where you're expecting one word and get another. Yes, this is in essence a fart song, and a great one at that, so be forewarned that there will likely be squeals of laughter induced in your children should they be allowed to hear this. I say "should they be allowed to hear this" because I know there are some parents out there who try to limit the "crude humor" that their kids are exposed to. I don't hear that too much in relation to kids' music, but quite often in relation to kids' movies and TV shows, so I'm sure it translates through all children's media, or at least, it should. I suppose limiting the intake of crude humor isn't a bad idea, and I certainly have no right to question what anyone thinks is good or bad for their kids.

But let's face it... farts are funny. The combination of the sound and the smell makes for a unique experience that is virtually irresistible as comic fodder. Of course, the timing and the character involved often has something to do with whether it's funny or just plain gross. I'm thinking of the Monty Python sketch where the Queen of England is at a very formal event and excuses herself to the bathroom, and then you hear all kinds of gaseous expulsions... That's hilarious, because the Queen is so prim and proper. But on the other hand, your weird Uncle Frank, who already smells a little strange to begin with, asking kids to pull his finger... that probably falls under the "just plain gross" category. But farts are the great equalizer of all humanity... rich, poor, young, old, men, women, beautiful, not-so-beautiful... Everyone farts, or at least has farted at some point. So why should bodily humor like that be considered off-limits for kids? I'm amused to think of some parents who might be diligent about keeping crude humor completely away from their kids, but who themselves enjoyed the Austin Powers movies, or who were among the well-dressed adult audience who were laughing uproariously at George Carlin's fart routine when I saw him at an upper-scale theatre venue in New York. In other words, apparently kids are just too young to really appreciate the intricate sophistication of fart humor?? Yeah, that must be it.

"The Duct Tape Festival" is the next folky tune and is a Charlie Daniels style story song about a very real festival held every year in Avon, Ohio. I love the rolling melody and plaintive feel of the song, as if his very happiness depends on whether he will attend and how many duct tape jackets and wallets he will be able to sell. My favorite of the folk tunes is next with the very catchy "Bad for the Roads, but Good on Chicken" (see video below), discussing the pros and cons of salt and featuring a funny-sounding local-yokel background chorus singing "good on chicken!" The song includes some poultry-insensitive lyrics like, "If it's icy when I go for a ride, and I hit some chickens when I start to slide, I pull out my sodium chloride, 'cause it sure tastes good on chicken." John is careful, though, in the final verse, to recognize that some may not like to eat their feathered friends, while asserting his own pleasure in doing so: "Now chicken is a food that's good to eat, unless you're a vegan or you don't eat meat. So keep your chickens out of the street, 'cause you know I love my chicken!"

The last of the folk songs is the very clever "The Rhyming Song", which like all the others is very memorable and employs another lyrical misdirection, playing beautifully with our rhyme scheme expectations.

Highlights among the rock/synth tunes include "Stink Monkey", a nice modern retelling of the old Struvelpeter German stories my mother used to tell me, showing the consequences of what happens when you don't bathe or brush your teeth; "Bunny Foo Foo", with an unlikely bully character in a Tone Loc groove; "Best Friends", which adds yet another unique take on the idea of imaginary friends; and "Ready, Fire, Aim!", which has a great message about thinking first before you speak or act on something. That's a very cool tune in its own right,
though it seems a little out of place in its style and approach, being rather serious and sounding more like modern punk or like Neil Young when he turns on the heavy distortion.

Musically, Robot Monkey Head is sort of like having a peanut butter and tuna fish sandwich. They are both great sandwiches on their own, but a little strange put together. But John's humor, charm and engagingly goofy voice are the glue that bind it all together (mmm... peanut butter, tuna fish and glue!), and considering the subject matter is often pretty strange, it ends up working just perfectly.

John Hadfield website

I usually include MP3 samples with my features, but I really want to encourage you to see John's great video promo below, which includes several samples from his songs.

"Bad for the Roads, but Good on Chicken" live video (below)

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Roger Day's new CD, Dream Big!

The great Roger Day, one of my favorite children's music artists (click here for my previous feature on him), has released his third CD, called Dream Big!, and it adds several more Roger Day classics to the kids' music catalog.

Roger has a way of making memorable, easy to follow and also very musically fulfilling songs, and the first several tracks on Dream Big! are terrific examples of that, including the poppy title track with its enthusiastic exhortation for kids to sing loud, jump high and dream big; "Rumble in the Jungle (The Elefunk Song)"; the mid-career Beatles with string quartet sound of "Zachary Hated Bumblebees"; the laid-back charm of "I Like Yaks"; "Roly Poly", with a Buddy Holly/Bo Diddley riff that appropriately employs The Crickets as the backup band and has a hilarious line about not knowing "Bo Diddley squat"; and "Uno, Dos, Tres", with a catchy and beautiful Spanish melody.

The album is only hit-and-miss for me after that point. I give Roger mucho bravery points for his rapping on "Turn Off the TV" (my wife and I have instituted a strict "no middle-aged white guy rapping" policy for my albums). I'm not sure how well the song will work, but if you're trying to get your kids to watch less TV, I suppose it can't hurt. "Hello Sunshine" is nice in a Turtles meets The Osmonds kind of way, but also sort of innocuous (in a Turtles meets The Osmonds kind of way). "Zoe's World" would have made a perfect 80's sitcom theme. "Happy Hippos Hopping" and "The Greatest Day on Earth Day" sound very similar to each other, and remind me a bit of Ralph's World's more cutesy folk-pop songs. "Life is a Miracle" is a very engaging reggae anthem, and "I Love You (More than My Shoe)" is a fun old-style tune reminiscent of "The Goodbye Song" from Roger's last album, Ready to Fly.

The later songs that didn't grab me as much are still decent and well-produced by any other standard, so to say that they aren't as good as the earlier tracks or as some of Roger's other hits like "Mosquito Burrito" and "Open Up the Coconut" is not to say that they're not good. It's just that the bar has been set very high. Altogether, it's a really fun album, and it's great to hear some new music from Roger, especially considering that Ready to Fly was released waaaaaay back in 2001.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Mr. Billy

Mister Billy is a very popular children's entertainer from Wisconsin. He performs over 300 shows a year, which is an amazingly busy schedule for any performer, but especially for someone doing energetic live shows for kids. Obviously, he is great at entertaining kids in a live setting, but his CDs also stand up on their own, with a lot of great songs and energy, and a nice variety of styles and approaches.

Much of Mr. Billy's music has the feel of classic rock 'n' roll, and he appropriately rips on guitar, with many cool riffs on his songs. Vocally, he's got a twangy blues rock delivery, which can also be very expressive when needed. If I had to pick another artist that he reminds me of, it would probably be ZZ Top, ranging from their early raw music ("La Grange", "Cheap Sunglasses", etc.) through their more commercial later music ("Legs", "Sharp Dressed Man", etc.), and also on another end of the music spectrum, he's kind of like Howard Jones.

Mr. Billy has released four CDs, and while most of them are electric guitar-based, his latest album, Batteries Not Included, is all acoustic, though still with a lot of the same rock feel to it. It starts off with "Good Morning", which has a catchy and funky feel and includes a very nice counterpoint section. This is charmingly quirky and reminds me of my friend Kent Olmstead, who writes and produces cool indie rock with the band Fast Sundae. "Clap Your Hands" is a participatory rock anthem, which largely cops the "Satisfaction" riff at one point. "We Went to the Sea" chugs along nicely with an enthusiastic chorus of kids. By and large, Mr. Billy seems to be targeting the younger range of kids with these songs, and he does a really good job of appealing to their interest and attention.

Songs like "R-I-N-G-O" and "The ABC Blues" are kind of fun the first time for me and then don't really hold any interest beyond that, but kids would give them more longevity, and ultimately that's what matters. Other covers on the album are either hit or miss, and my definite preference for Mr. Billy's recordings are his original songs, which are very memorable in their own right. My favorites are in the middle of the album, starting with "Something Fishy", which is a take on the old "Teasing Mr. Crocodile" song and has a cool Grateful Dead with minor chord harmonies kind of sound. Next is "Chug-a Chug-a Choo Choo", a very catchy blues rock hit with an amazing sped up fiddle break (see video below). "I Heard Said the Bird" is a really fun 50's rocker a la Elvis and the Stray Cats.

The album closes with two more great songs. "Bernie the Bubble Breathing Dragon" has some terrific chord changes and a nice "don't play with fire" message. "Goodnight Sun" is a gorgeous lullaby. There is another Grateful Dead comparison here, but this time in the sense of some harmonies that don't quite lock in together. But just because the harmonies are a little off on "Box of Rain" or "Uncle John's Band" doesn't mean they aren't still great songs to listen to, and the same thing definitely applies for "Goodnight Sun".

I wanted to feature Mr. Billy and Monty Harper subsequently, because they have worked together on a few projects. The pair collaborated on both "Chug-a Chug-a Choo Choo" and "Goodnight Sun", and one of my favorite songs on Monty Harper's new Get a Clue album is "Can You Guess?", featuring Mr. Billy's arrangement and instrumentation.

I also received Mr. Billy's Greatest Hits album, which includes a wider variety of styles and sounds, and features his electric guitar sound. "Seuss on the Loose" has that modern ZZ Top sound that I mentioned before.
"The Ants in Your Pants Dance" is kind of like a cross between Huey Lewis' rock songs and "Hand Jive" from Grease, and is thankfully nothing at all like my own song of the same name (another example of what I said in my recent Idea Tree 2.0 post, that the same idea or title can yield totally different results). "First Day!" is partially a parody of "Summertime Blues" with a bit of a Scorpions riff and ably tackles the tough job of making the first day of school seem like a great thing. For some kids it is (and for parents, definitely), but for many a little propaganda like this might help ease the long walk out to the bus stop after the all-too-brief summer fun. "I Like Dinosaurs" has a really great riff and a B-52s 80's rock feel. "Let's Go Writing" has a bass riff that's kind of a fast version of "Peter Gunn" and a sweet vocal echo on the hook. "Bubble Trouble" goes some interesting directions and has very clever sound arrangement. "Don't Call Me a Bird" is a neat riddle with a Sting/Bon Jovi/Howard Jones flavor.

You can gather from some of my descriptions above that Mr. Billy is pretty heavily influenced by 80's music, running the gamut between 80's rock and metal and 80's synth pop and new wave. So
that might be a determining factor as far as how well parents will take to his music. But regardless, kids will find a lot to love in Mr. Billy's songs, and they might be a good way to transition your kids into listening to your old Flock of Seagulls and Men Without Hats albums.

Mr. Billy's website