Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Curious George

My two year-old, Evee, became a big fan of the stuffed monkey I got for her last summer. It was on sale in the wake of the Curious George movie's merchandise push, and it was very cute. Before I went in to the store I had asked her, jokingly, if she needed anything, and she said "a monkey", so it seemed like an obvious choice once I saw the stuffed George. And until then, she hadn't had her own "special stuffed toy" to sleep with and carry around and hug tightly... she mostly had her choice of a variety of stuffed toys that her older sister had, but nothing of her very own (well, we had certainly given her stuffed toys before, but nothing that she had really glommed on to). It's a bedtime Curious George, and he's wearing a pajama with a bottom flap, and Evee has a lot of laughs pulling the flap open and saying "bummy!" There is a real personality connection between Evee and the character of "Monkey George", as she calls him... Evee is extremely curious and fun-loving, and when she's left a room it's almost as messy as if Curious George had been there.

So recently at the library, I realized, gosh, we should read some of the Curious George books. I loved those when I was little. Strange to see, though, how times have made some things in there a little bit awkward... such as the man in the yellow hat essentially being a poacher who grabs George for a zoo. I mean, zoos are good things and all, and at some points people have to go and get some animals for them... but it just doesn't seem like the best basis for a cute buddy story these days. And there are other things like George smoking from the man in the yellow hat's pipe, and being thrown in jail for making a prank phone call... Just not the kind of material that would seem quite as publishable in 2007 as it was in 1941. The book was enjoyable, regardless, but felt a little dated.

So I thought we'd give the new movie a try and see how the basic Curious George premise might be reimagined in 2006-07. To my delight, the movie is very entertaining and the changes to the original story are all cleverly done and work very well for the new story. There is a great voice cast including Will Farrell as the man in the yellow hat, David Cross (Tobias from Arrested Development), Drew Barrymore, Eugene Levy and Dick van Dyke, and a lot of humor throughout (and all very clean humor). We did pause the DVD after the intro ad for the Curious George PBS program showed George making all kinds of messes, and said to our girls that if we were going to watch this movie, we needed both of them to promise not to play "Monkey See, Monkey Do". And we had to remind them afterwards about that promise, as the urge to act like a mischievous monkey was pretty strong.

But on to the music, eh? That's what this is supposed to be about, right? The soundtrack for the movie includes several songs by Jack Johnson, the mellow acoustic singer/songwriter with the smooth as syrup on banana pancakes voice. At first my wife commented about the music being too mellow and I think I agreed and used the term "nondescript". The songs kind of blended into each other and didn't really stand out in any kind of distinct way. But the thing with a movie that kids love is that they will want to watch it again and again, which means that I am watching it again and again, or at least listening to it again and again while doing other things... and after several listens I've come to really enjoy the songs. And I realize that movie music shouldn't really call attention to itself, but it usually sets a general mood or underscores the feeling of the film. In that sense, these songs didn't really work because the feeling of the film is often very upbeat and fast-paced. But what did work and makes these songs perfect for this particular film is that I think it needed the contrast of something mellower to offset the action. I recall Stephen Sondheim talking about A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and how the songs in that show weren't as funny as the comedy in the dialogue, and weren't intended to be, but were meant as a respite now and then from the frenetic humor. And I usually sequence my CDs in a similar way, mixing up the pacing of the humor and the song tempos to give some contrast and give kids a break now and then. So once I could appreciate how Jack Johnson's songs did fit so well along with the movie, even being so laid-back, then I could appreciate them a lot more for what they were.

"Upside Down" runs in full over the film's opening sequence and is a gently churning acoustic pop song which nicely "arrives" at the chorus and has some simple but effective acoustic lead lines. "People Watching" has a
bouncy Beatles flavor and a cute and catchy hook as Jack sings, "Well, I'm just people watching the other people watching me". "Broken" has some grooving Hendrix Strat funk. "Talk of the Town" has a breezy Jimmy Buffet/James Taylor sound and shows off the cool tone of Jack's voice when he says "yea-ehh". "Questions" and "Supposed to Be" are both lazily beautiful ballads. The rest of the soundtrack includes other songs in a similar vein as the ones featured in the film and has some standouts including the sweet cover of the White Stripes' "We're Going to Be Friends"; the Beck-y backbeat blues of "The Sharing Song"; the funky soul of "3 Rs", which includes a take on the Schoolhouse Rock! classic "Three is a Magic Number"; and the pretty arpeggiated acoustic meanderings of "Wrong Turn".

So thumbs way up on both the film and the soundtrack. I should also mention another great Curious George song, which is the theme song for the new PBS show. This is a terrific swing jazz tune performed by Dr. John that is very catchy and really smokes (musically... no pipes). Having heard this prior to watching the movie, perhaps I was expecting the film's music to be more like this, which is why it took a little bit of 'warming up' to the soundtrack. This has the wildly upbeat and fun kind of sound that seems to have more of an immediate connection with the character of the monkey in question.

You can hear samples from Jack Johnson's Curious George soundtrack here. To hear the full version of the Curious George PBS TV show theme, go to this page and click on the Meet Curious George link.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Captain Bogg and Salty

What is it with kids and pirates? Let's face it, kids love 'em. I suppose it's probably a combination of the cool things they say ("Arr!", "Aye!", "Avast!"), the cool things they wear (hats, hooks, eye patches, puffy shirts, parrots), and the cool things they do (swashbuckling, treasure hunting, cannon firing, plank walking). A pirate is a real multi-dimensional character for a kid, perfect for all kinds of imaginative adventures. But of course, the reality is that pirates are pretty nasty people... at the very least thieves and drunkards, and at the worst murderers and rapists. It's a little puzzling why pirates have been perpetuated over the years as play characters for kids. Then again, you can't play "cops and robbers" without some kids being the robbers, or play Star Wars without someone being Darth Vader. And any actor knows that when it comes to role-playing, some of the juiciest roles are the villains. I suppose that any kid who actually idolizes pirates will need a moment like when Bobby Brady realized that Jesse James wasn't a great role model, but inasmuch as pirates are great sources of imagination and adventure, that's certainly a cool thing.

My own pirate fancy has resurfaced of late as I've been playing the fun computer game, Sid Meier's Pirates! (which I would have recommended for pirate-loving kids to play along with their parents but for one word - cleavage), and I recently saw the DVD of Dead Man's Chest. To put on my movie reviewer's hat (or thumb) for a moment, I thought that was a rollicking good time, and much better than the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, although that one was fun, too. So the pirate flag of my imagination has been flying high lately, and it was an ideal time to discover Captain Bogg and Salty, a musical pirate band from Portland. And I was glad to discover that
beyond the gimmick of that premise, the band really has great music and a lot of depth and humor.

Their first album, Bedtime Stories for Pirates, starts off with a hearty encouragement from Captain Angus Bogg to come live the life of a pirate, and then his crew members trade off verses of the first song, "I'm a Singin' Pirate", which combines the sound and jubilant chorus of your average drinking anthem with the melody and sophisticated wordplay of Gilbert and Sullivan. Other selections from among their three albums include a lot of what you would expect from what might be considered the 'pirate subgenre'; hand clapping, accordian, mandolin, crew chants, etc. But then there are a number of songs that offer totally different music than what might be expected, such as "Cat O' Nine Tails", with its smarmy jazzy pop flavor; "Scurvy", a ska polka song with an important educational message about what to do when you have scurvy (eat a lime); "Manatee", a pretty acoustic ballad; "I'm a Pirate", a Ventures meets the Yardbirds tune about a pirate who also surfs; "Pirate Party", a rockabilly romp a la the Stray Cats or BR549; the funny and dramatic Spanish drone of "Scallywag"; "Doldrums", which hearkens to The Who and The Doors; and the 80's metal sound of "Dead Men Tell No Tales".

My favorite track is "Pieces of 8ight", which maintains pirate-styled chording while infusing a cool modern rock sound that reminds me of Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People". (I'm sure that will be a quote they'll want to use when promoting themselves to elementary schools and other children's events - "Captain Bogg and Salty will remind you of Marilyn Manson!") And the band recently made an excellent video of the song, which you can see below.

Captain Bogg and Salty plays a lot of shows for kids, and they also do shows for adults at clubs (where the patrons can presumably get their fill of grog or Grog Lite), and apparently their show doesn't change at all between the two audiences. So what works as pirate themed fun for kids also works as rebellious pirate fun for adults, too. In any case, their songs describe in great detail various aspects in the life of a pirate. Some things are good (finding treasure) and some are bad (scurvy), but regardless, the band does an amazing job of conveying the fascination of the pirate's life to anyone with such a fancy.

I look forward to meeting up with Captain Bogg and his crew at some point on our mutual travels around the Northwest. I just hope they don't ransack my RV and steal my stash of root beer!

Captain Bogg and Salty website

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Hipwaders

The Hipwaders are a really tight trio from California who have a fun sound and a nice variety of styles. Their self-titled debut CD was released in 2005 and starts right off with the invitation- "Come along with us!" And then it jumps into a very upbeat song imploring all to "come aboard the Hipwader bus". The sound for this is very much like The Byrds (uh, Roger McGuinn, not Alfred Hitchcock), complete with 12-string Rickenbacker guitar. And there's also a Wonders (or Oneders, if you prefer) kind of feel from That Thing You Do! I'm not sure that this worked that well for me as a full song, but I think it would be great as a jingle or TV theme song as it's very catchy and totally "feel good".

The album continues with the Stray Cats rockabilly of "Messy Room Song". I like the idea that the kid in the song is sent to clean up his room with a feather duster, a mop and broom, and then realizes that he really needs a bulldozer and a dump truck. "Earthquake" has a similar kind of verse-to-chorus change as Geof Johnson's "Hot Sand", and adopts a B-52's kind of sound, which works great. The B-52's influence is back again with "Rock Lobster" style backing vocals in the chorus of "Twitchy". Musically, the album shifts gears pretty sharply with "Welcome to the Zoo", which has sort of a mariachi feel to it, and especially on "Silly Robot Dance", which gives a clear answer if you were wondering whatever happened to Falco. These are both fun tracks and demonstrate the versatility of the band and the vocal chops of lead singer Tito Uquillas.

Other favorites of mine include the Beatle-esque "Insect Safari", which includes some funny banter between the 'insects'; the creepy jazzy "Mr. Wiggly Jiggly Bones", which I can picture as the soundtrack behind some Tim Burton animation; the tribal rock of "Volcano"; the Smashmouth vibe and dirty guitar of "Stand Up to the Bully"; the David Lynch landscape and spooky twang of "Howling at the Moon"; and the closing song "Valentine", which opens with some Beach Boys "ba ba ba"s and turns into a bouncy Turtles love song with cute lyrics like- "Valentine, I'd like to make you mine. Can you see this heart-shaped thought balloon floating over my head when I think of you?"

If there's any complaint I have about the album (and when I say 'complaint' I mean that very mildly... it's not like I'll be calling to yell at The Hipwaders' customer service department), it's that sometimes the influences are so on-the-nose as to lose some of the character of the band itself. Tracks like "Jelly Beans" and "My Green Bicycle" are good songs, but they're so completely soaked in Beatles sounds and chord phrasing and recording techniques (and Tito doing a slight Liverpudlian accent) that I almost wonder, am I listening to Revolver or The Hipwaders? And there are a lot of other on-the-nose references like that throughout the album, like the Falco and B-52s things. These guys are super-talented musicians and songwriters and I'd like to hear their music be something more unique to who they are and have their influences be much more transparent. It's one thing to listen and think, hey, this band seems like they're influenced by the Beatles or the B-52s... that's cool... but it's not as good when they sound exactly like that. If you're looking for a tribute act, then sure, but not for something original. There was already The Beatles and The B-52s... so I'd like to hear The Hipwaders be The Hipwaders.

The band is currently working on their next album, which should be released sometime this year. I'll look forward to hearing that and seeing where they go from here. Their debut CD is terrific and makes them a real promising entry into the kids' music world. Either you're on the bus or you're off the bus... Definitely pay the fare and get on with The Hipwaders!

The Hipwaders website

Review of The Hipwaders' Educated Kid CD

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Ralph's House of Blues Tour - Win Tickets!

Rice Krispies is sponsoring Ralph's World on a House of Blues tour. I have four tickets to give away to anyone who would like to go to one of the shows listed below.

To win the tickets, listen to my interview with Ralph Covert below, then add a comment to this post with the correct spelling of his name, backwards. A winner will be selected from all correct entries. The deadline is January 31.

I'll be doing some shows in Portland just a week after Ralph will be there, and probably won't be able to get out there sooner. And then when he's in Seattle is when I'll be in Portland... Bummer! I was hoping to catch him during this tour, but I guess that'll have to wait.

Anyway, I'm sure it'll be a really great time. Here are the dates:

Feb. 3 - Anaheim CA House of Blues
Feb. 4 - San Francisco CA The Fillmore
Feb. 10 - San Diego CA House of Blues
Feb. 11 - Portland OR Aladdin Theater
Feb. 17 - West Hollywood CA House of Blues
Feb. 18 - Seattle WA The Moore Theater
Feb. 24 - Las Vegas NV House of Blues
Feb. 25 - Boulder CO The Boulder Theater
Mar. 3 - Chicago IL House of Blues
Mar. 4 - Somerville MA Somerville Theater
Mar. 10 - Cleveland OH House of Blues
Mar. 11 - Philadelphia PA Theatre of the Living Arts
Mar. 17 - Lake Buena Vista FL House of Blues
Mar. 18 - Atlanta GA Variety Playhouse
Mar. 24 - New Orleans LA House of Blues
Mar. 25 - St Louis MO The Pageant

Friday, January 05, 2007

This Post Has No Elephants... Eric Ode's new DVD

My friend Eric Ode, who I posted about before here, has just released a brand new DVD called Welcome to the Workshop. This collection includes videos of four songs from his previous CDs including "I Love My Shoes" and "At the Library", as well as five new songs that are exclusive to this DVD. The new songs include the funky "Worms", the charming country-folk song "Washing the Dog" and my favorite, "This Song Has No Elephants", which is a very cute song and a really fun video. Click here to order the DVD and check out the video for "This Song Has No Elephants" below.