Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Uncle Moondog

That's right, it's another "uncle" here at Cool Tunes for Kids... First Uncle Rock and now Uncle Moondog.

Uncle Moondog is a very cool cartoon dog who lives on Sunshine Island. Musician Mike McManus produces Uncle Moondog's music with great flair and versatility, and his self-titled first album is a favorite of mine in the kids' music genre, with very memorable hooks and melodies and fun production and arrangement throughout.

The album starts off with the bouncy and catchy "New Goldfish", which introduces the dawg and his new pet goldfish, Timmy (see the video below). Next up is "Percy the Pelican" which has a great B-52s meets The Munsters kind of riff. "Stanky Socks" has a see-saw hook to it, as Uncle Moondog describes his most foul hosiery. "Bampy's Bungalow" starts with a "Centerfield" riff and has a Jimmy Buffet feel. "Dancing With My Dog" is next and it's my favorite on the album... a fast country-ish tune with a terrific hook and some really nice doo-wop backing vocals. I'm not really sure why a dog would have a dog, and the concepts of these songs don't always make that much narrative sense in terms of a character/story arc, but so what, they're a lot of fun and this isn't meant to be a story or concept album. Uncle Moondog's voice (which is somewhere between Dr. John and McGruff the Crime Dog) is an especially perfect fit for the bluesy "Bathtime Blues". The doo-wop comes out in full for the very cute "Penny", which is my wife's favorite track. This tune has some quite tasty tremolo guitar, and there is a lot of really sweet guitar playing throughout the album. The Uncle shifts to an 80's pop/rock/new wave sound (somewhere vaguely in the range of Gary Numan and The Cars) for "Shufflin' My Feet". The album ends with the reggae track "Porpoises, Pelicans and Palm Trees", which includes some amusing interludes with Timmy, the fish.

While Uncle Moondog's voice is well-fitting and engaging for a cartoon dog, the voice of Timmy, the fish, may be an issue for some people. It's your basic Chipmunks or "Flying Purple People Eater" kind of voice, and my feeling is that it would have been better in smaller doses. Timmy appears in the first song, and that's fine, but then he's also in the next few songs and by then you may have heard enough of him, especially with certain words and phrases of his cutting through in a more piercing way. Your kids will probably have a higher tolerance for Timmy's high-pitched, silly voice, though, so don't let that get in the way of enjoying what is a great album, regardless of that.

I don't have Uncle Moondog's second CD, Baloney Cake, but from samples online it sounds like more of the same, which is a good thing when "the same" is as well-written and well-produced as the first album. Uncle Moondog has an eCard video of "The Birthday Song" from Baloney Cake available on his website at this link.

Uncle Moondog's website

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Uncle Rock

Uncle Rock (aka Robert Warren) is a cool kids' performer from Chichester, New York, which is in the area sometimes considered "upstate New York". I say "sometimes", because the definition of "upstate New York" is kind of strange... You'd think it would only mean the part up near the top, and yet, I've also heard it referring to Uncle Rock's area in the Catskills, in which the "upstate" probably means "up" as in up from sea level. Also, having lived for many years in Western New York, I've actually heard references to the Buffalo area as being "upstate", which I can only assume means that for some people, anywhere that isn't New York City is "upstate". And then again, those of us in Buffalo often referred to areas like Syracuse and Rochester (there's an awful lot of "chesters" in New York) as "upstate", so who knows where it really is.

But in any case, "upstate" is actually a good description for Uncle Rock's music and how it makes you feel. He has two kids' music albums, the first of which I've only heard a few samples of, and the more recent, Plays Well With Others, which I'll focus on here.

On Plays Well With Others, Uncle Rock quickly proceeds to bring the rock to the table with the heavily T-Rex influenced opening track "Rock Out!", where he incites legions of kids to dance with their daddies, mosh with their mommies and groove with their grannies. T-Rex gives way to The Blues Brothers in the bridge with a cop of the "Everybody Need Somebody" riff. The folky "Playin' Possum" is next and is very cute and features a rippin' snore solo. "Picnic in the Graveyard" has a memorable anthemic melody, describing a holiday celebration of one's ancestors. This is both a beautiful song and a really wonderful holiday (see the video below), and thematically the track leads nicely into the acoustic ballad, "Brand New Butterfly". Throughout the album, Warren sounds vocally like a more polished version of John Kay (Steppenwolf),
or a less polished version of Kenny Loggins, and "Brand New Butterfly" particularly shows off the nice timbre of his voice. "Shoe Bandit" is one of those kids' songs that has a particularly funny and clever observation about kid/parent life, and I will now be singing this song every time my girls and I are frantically looking for their shoes so we can go out somewhere. "Break a Few Eggs" is a catchy life-lesson with a nice laid-back groove. "Sugar Talkin'" has an instantly memorable catch-phrase ("It's the sugar talkin', not me"), and could have been a real hit if it wasn't a bit sloppy in spots. Better produced is "Rock & Roll Babysitter" and then "I'm a Pirate", which covers several pirate cliches in the lyrics and has a great musical vibe and a nice "Arrr!" lead-in to every verse. "Disco Nap" is kind of a strange concept and never quite locks into its groove, rhythmically, but the album closer, "Connected" is a beautifully realized ballad, both musically and lyrically.

One thing that my wife mentioned about this CD (though she liked the album a lot, otherwise) was regarding the overabundance of kids singing along on many of the tracks. And it's not so much that there were kids on a lot of tracks... there's certainly nothing wrong with that... but that in this case it is kind of hit-and-miss as far as whether they are effective or not. Kids can make a kids' music recording sound cute and add excitement to the mix, but if they are too much out of tune or off rhythm with the main vocal line that they are supposed to be following, it's one of those things where it may sound funny and adorable the first time... but after that it can be kind of disconcerting and difficult to listen to. But Roseann wanted me to mention that her ears are particularly sensitive about that kind of thing when she is producing music, so it may not be a problem for everyone. It didn't bother me nearly as much, though I do know what she means by that and agree that there is some level of that on this CD. Not to make Uncle Rock such an example of this, though, as there are many kids' CDs, even by some of the biggest names, that have that same kind of problem, but since it came up I thought it might be worth mentioning now.

There are two cover tracks, the first a medley of "Magic Carpet Ride", "Hey Bo Diddley" and "Magic Bus", and the second an acoustic version of "Pure Imagination" from Willy Wonka. Neither of these really worked too well for me, with "Pure Imagination" vaguely reminding me of my old coffeeshop gigs when someone would request something that I only kinda knew how to sing and play. There's just not a strong sense of confidence in his performance on that track. But thankfully, Uncle Rock's original tunes are excellent, so I think if he focuses on them and works a little on getting the overall recording production a bit more polished (while still retaining some of the nice edge and grit that he has), then his CDs will continue to be among the best in the kids' music genre.

Uncle Rock website

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Planet Kid Vid

Mr. Billy and Monty Harper are popular kids' music artists from the Midwest, and they've started a new blog site with various kids' music videos from around the web. For example, today they are featuring two videos by Eric Herman (who dat??).

It looks like Planet Kid Vid will be a great place to have a lot of kids' music videos gathered together, so fit as many kids as you can on your lap and crank up the cheap computer speakers and be prepared to hear, "Again! Again!" as you sift your way through the videos there. And if you're a kids' artist with videos, you might want to get in touch with Monty or Mr. Billy and see if they'll post them there.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang

When you listen to the first couple of songs on Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang's latest album, Get Up & Dance, your brain may have a hard time putting together what you're hearing... well, perhaps it's just my brain that has that problem... On the one hand the music is very down and funky, almost like Sly and the Family Stone at times, but then there's the voice of Gwendolyn singing, and... well... her voice is about as far removed from Sly Stone's voice as you could possibly imagine.

There are several words and phrases to describe Gwendolyn's voice, along the lines of "cutesy wootsey", "Barbie doll", "bubblegum", and "Chipmunks without helium". I imagine she might list Helen Kane ("I Wanna Be Loved by You"), Bernadette Peters and Betty Boop
among her vocal influences. I doubt she'll want to use "the Betty Boop of kids' music" as a tagline, but there is that kind of cartoonish and kittenish quality to her voice. Ultimately, though, as a singer and entertainer Gwendolyn is unbelievably adorable and smile-inducing in a completely wholesome way, and contrary to Betty Boop's flirty flapper-ness, her voice paints a sunny picture of Shirley Temple and Cindy Brady having a tea party with their Raggedy Ann dolls. Her voice combined with the punchy and upbeat music from the band has an effect that might actually be prescribed by doctors as a mood enhancer. If you don't feel good when you listen to this music, then you're just way too jaded, duuuude. Lighten up, already, and let the sunshine in!

This album is nothing but fun from start to finish, and is almost as participation-inducing as a Jim Gill album. Needless to say, my girls (ages 2 and 4) loved it right off the bat. The title track has a great "Twist and Shout" kind of feel and is guaranteed to get your little ones up and moving, and perhaps you, too, unless you have officially reached the age of "fuddy duddy". "Red Means Stop" is a take on the old Red Light/Green Light game and is heavy on that aforementioned Sly Stone sound. The participation continues heavily on "Run Baby Run", which changes nicely from fast to slow parts. Other highlights for me include the very catchy toe-tapper "Sweet Marmalade", which would have been a big hit for CCR, Three Dog Night or The Brady Bunch (or if you prefer, The Silver Platters); "Bicycle Ride", which reminds me of Elton John's upbeat 70's tunes; "Ode to Pets", a rock 'n' roll song which cleverly introduces the band members' pets; "Snuggle Wuggle", a sweet lullaby that I have a hard time listening to without chuckling because I keep thinking of Nanny G singing "Peek-A-Boo" to Frasier; and "Out in My Garden", which starts with a really cool laid back riff that quickly folds into a fast bluegrass song, complete with some tasty jaw harp.

I don't have the band's first album, but listening to samples on their website tells me that there's a lot more yummy stuff on that CD; "Farm Animal Friends" is a really cute (gosh, there just aren't enough synonyms for "cute" to supply me for this article) folk song, featuring a "wall of Chipmunk sound" as Gwendolyn harmonizes with herself way up in the vocal stratosphere (see the video below); "Please" features some virtuoso slide whistle playing and more engagingly adorable vocals; there are more Brady Bunch hits with "You Can Be Anything" and "Freedom of the Heart"; "Anatomy" names various body parts in the verse and then goes into a great chorus; "I Don't Think I Like It" is funny and catchy in a Monty Python "I Like Traffic Lights" kind of way, but I'm not sure if the accent of the singer is supposed to be German or Oriental; and "Little Monkey", which is a bit of a cop of both "Da Doo Run Run" and "I Love a Rainy Night", but is still fun in its own way.

So unless you're just a plain old grumpy grump, you and your kids should really love the effervescent Gwendolyn and her highly musical gang. Even if you are a generally happy person, you are bound to feel your mood being enhanced. And certainly if you need something to pick you up and cheer you up, this will do the trick, in which case, take two CDs and call me in the morning.

Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang website

Here are my girls having fun to Get Up and Dance...

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ginger Hendrix

In my recent post about performing for an audience of kids I mentioned that Dan Zanes has an instant advantage with a kid audience because he has that uniquely crazy cool look. Well, I think that Ginger Hendrix also has an instant advantage as a music performer... no, she doesn't look like Dan Zanes... that probably wouldn't work so well for a woman... but she automatically has an essence of cool about her because of her name. Ginger Hendrix! Wow, how cool is that?! 'Ginger' is a sweet spice, and also the name of the great drummer from Cream, Ginger Baker, the legendary singer and dancer Ginger Rogers, and of course that sultry starlet from Gilligan's Island. So she's already off and running with her first name. And 'Hendrix', well gosh, it would be hard to find a first name that wouldn't sound cool with that... Ebenezer Hendrix. Cool. Bertha Hendrix. Still pretty cool. Dweezil Hendrix. Very cool. I almost wonder if 'Ginger Hendrix' is even her real name, but I certainly wouldn't blame her if she did change her name to that, because it's so great of a name. (Note to self: should have gone with Eric Hendrix. D'oh!)

As if it wasn't enough that Ginger has one of the best... names... ever... she also endears herself to kids right off the bat on her debut CD of children's music, Macaroni Boy Eats at Chez Shooby Doo, by using the word 'stinky' abundantly in the first song, "Stinky Trash", and evoking the very funny image of "a nose with legs". Ginger has a voice that varies between being strong and a little raspy/bluesy, almost like a more restrained Janis Joplin, and being very pretty and smooth. Her singing is a little unpolished at times, but her voice and her phrasing are both filled to overflowing with all-important character.

The next two songs on Macaroni Boy are just kind of okaaay for me, and I might have sequenced them later on the disc (though I've second-guessed the track order on all three of my own CDs, so I'm certainly no expert in that regard!), but the CD really takes off from there in a big way. The fourth track is the title track, which is a story song about a kid in a restaurant and the persistent waiter who tries in vain to sway the boy from ordering his beloved "macaroni, that creamy cheesy treat". There's a brilliance to the waiter's offerings such as "angel tooth pasta", "artichoke flannel ragout" and "wild billy goat hoof cheese", because it's that kind of mish-mash of words that kids
likely hear when fancy waiters deliver their spiels. There's almost a "Cheese Shop" feel to this track, and the only complaint is that it just kind of ends after the fourth verse, and I was expecting some kind of Python-esque punch line or ending. But it's still a lot of fun, and you can even make a game out of it. My daughter, Becca, and I have been playing it together a lot lately, where we take turns being the waiter and the kid. Whenever Becca is the waiter, she tends to use the word "sausage" a lot, as in "peanut butter sausage ice cream". "Sausage" is just one of those particularly funny words for kids, you know, like "stinky".

The rest of the songs on Macaroni Boy are very charming, too. "My Daddy Loves Tools" is about a daddy who loves tools, though I'm sure you could have guessed that from the title, and includes some percussion sounds to go along with the tool descriptions. "Let's Pretend" has a great melody and sense of imagination and participation. "Funny Word Dictionary" has some cute definitions like "baa squeezy swish swish", which means "that sheep is wearing panty hose". The first time I heard "Rocking My Cat to Sleep" I wasn't paying close attention to the early part of the song and so when I heard only the later part I thought it was a sadly sweet (or sweetly sad) and poignant song about pet loss. But then I heard the first part where she says she likes rocking her cat to sleep, so now I'm not really sure what it's about... maybe dogs are just too big to comfortably rock to sleep? I think I liked it better as a coping with loss kind of thing, but I still think it's very beautiful, regardless. "There Was Another Old Woman" is an amusing parody that replaces fly and horse swallowing with women's fashion.

The CD ends with four tracks recorded at an intimate live setting, and it is these tracks which really shine a bright light on what a great kids' performer Ginger is. With the rest of the album being almost entirely arranged with only her voice and guitar, I kind of wonder why she didn't just do the whole album as a live show. It would have made for a more consistent recording
and I'm sure many of the other tracks would have also showed off her sense of humor and the audience participation in the live setting. But anyway, the first of the live tracks is "Teacher Mary School", which has a very simple and very catchy hook (most of these songs do, by the way) and a funny participation part where Ginger asks "One of our favorite things to do is..." and the kids always answer "Play!" Ginger acts as if that is the greatest answer each time it is given, which is a wonderful way to respond. "The Breakfast Song" includes more participation and amusement from Ginger and the kids as they turn what they had for breakfast into refrains, though I wasn't crazy about the coffee verse at the end (what is it with so many kids' musicians with songs and references about coffee??). The CD ends with a very sweet ballad called "My Mommy Loves Me", which includes some verses that keep it real, like "Sometimes I hit my brother and I make him cry. Sometimes I miss the potty, even when I really try." And then she brings it home with the title of the song, sung with a neat waver on the word "lu-uh-uves". Oh yeah, very nice.

Ginger has a unique and well-developed sense of humor and comedy which is rare and delightful. For adults, it's not so much laugh-out-loud humor as it is big-smile-on-the-face humor, but for the preschool audience that seems to be her ideal target, I'm sure there are many squeals of laughter when Ginger and her guitar are in the room. Ginger Hendrix not only has an amazing name, but she is a terrific all-around entertainer who really plays around in that wonderfully colorful bounce house that is a child's mind.

Ginger Hendrix website

Ralph Tickets Winner

The winner of the Ralph's World House of Blues tickets is... Barb W. of Villa Park, IL. Congratulations, Barb! Have a great time at the show.