Monday, June 25, 2007

Monty Harper

Monty Harper is without a doubt one of the most lyrically sophisticated writers working in children's music today. He might be considered the kids' music equivalent of Stephen Sondheim. However, whereas Sondheim is often ribbed for not writing hummable tunes ("Send in the Clowns" the notable exception), Monty is also gifted with being able to create very memorable hooks and melodies.

Monty has six CDs of music for kids, and a while ago he sent me all but the newest one. I still haven't had a chance to listen to them all, so I'll focus my attention here on his live recording, The Great Green Squishy Mean Concert CD. I've heard that disc a few times already, and it is a really great collection of the different kinds of things that Monty does and does so well, and should certainly make a good jumping off point for anyone to check out his other work.

"Loose Tooth" starts things off with a catchy Buddy Holly vibe and some clever lyric lines like: I've got a loose tooth. I can't wait to surprise her when I tell my teacher: I'm losing an incisor. "Silly Song" is exactly that, with a catchy chorus that would be at home on a Barney video (and hey, say what you will about Barney, but it's hard to be that catchy). "Horny Toad" has a cool funky sound and tells you just about everything you might like to know about the creature. For example, when provoked, the horny toad squirts blood from its eyes. How cool is that?!

"Hanging Out with Heroes at the Library" reminds me of the kinds of songs that Eric Ode does so well... the music is good, it involves the kids' thinking and responding, and it plugs reading and libraries. "Pop Up Sit Down" is a fun song where Monty increasingly plays with the audience's expectations to great effect. "Love This Baby" is a cute take on the old "Shaving Cream" gag. "The Frog Song" is an interactive story about a prince looking for the perfect princess in every frog he sees. "You're a Dinosaur" is a rock song with a nice refrain that covers a number of popular dinosaurs. It goes on quite a while over several verses, but never feels too long.

"Big Red Fire Truck" seems a little ordinary, musically, until the chorus hits the line "See me race to the rescue" where it hits an incredibly awesome chord change sequence, which sounds particularly great with the fire alarm wailing over it. That little section alone makes that song a favorite of mine, and it's a good example of how Monty makes all of his songs interesting in different ways.

It's appropriate that Monty subtitled his first album with the phrase "Intelligent Songs for Kids". He definitely doesn't dumb anything down, and he isn't afraid to use big words, trusting that kids will either understand them or will want to learn them if they don't already know their meaning. And at the same time, his songs are fun and involving for kids and can work really well for a wide range of ages. In other words, you don't need to be a brainiac to appreciate Monty's songs, though it may help.

Monty's latest album is called Get a Clue, following the current Summer Reading Program theme that many libraries adopt. His last album, Paws, Claws, Scales & Tales was based on last year's theme. I believe that next year's theme is bug related, so I'm guessing that Monty may be hard at work on writing a number of bug songs. If songs like "You're a Dinosaur" and "Horny Toad" are any indication, not only will we learn a lot of cool information about bugs if Monty does a bug themed CD, but we'll also really enjoy the tunes while we're learning. Combining real educational content with memorably entertaining music can be a very hard thing to accomplish... Schoolhouse Rock
is probably the best-known example of that... but Monty Harper is definitely a master of that in his own right.

Monty Harper website

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Desert Island Kids' Music

Some fellow kids' music bloggers have recently posted what would be their "desert island" kids' music albums... the albums they'd most want with them if they were stranded on a desert island. I was going to make my own list, but realized that it would be hard to narrow that down to a number like 10 without leaving off something really great. And also, it is very likely that my list could change almost completely were I to be rescued and stranded again in a year's time.

So I thought perhaps it might be better to go right to the source... people who are actually stranded on islands... and see what kind of kids' music they're listening to.

Very interesting, indeed. And I'm sure Captain Jack Sparrow sang Captain Bogg and Salty tunes when he was marooned on a desert island before the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but I wasn't able to get visual verification of that.

So what are your desert island album picks, kids' music or otherwise??

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Johnny Bregar

Johnny Bregar (also known as Johnny Breakdown or Johnny Brady Are) is a super soulful Seattle singer and songwriter (how's that for some alliteration?) who manages to sound a lot like Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr., Jack Johnson, Taylor Hicks and Lyle Lovett, while still sounding very original. He has two CDs, both of which are incredibly upbeat, infectious and fun.

Johnny's first CD, Stomp Yer Feet!, focuses mainly on traditional kids' songs like "If You're Happy and You Know It", "B-I-N-G-O", "Polly Wolly Doodle", "This Old Man", etc. Like Little Nashville, Johnny has found a way to make each of these classics new and fresh while still retaining the spirit of the original. Johnny stays closer to the traditional kind of acoustic folk arrangements that these songs feel most at home with, but the playing is top notch and never gets dull, even though some of the songs go on pretty long (but hey, it's not his fault that "This Old Man" had to play all the way up to ten). And some tracks really spice things up with some great electric piano, organ, ukulele, banjo and other instruments.

Johnny's voice is very seasoned and belies his age (unless he's a lot older than he looks?), and he can carry some pretty heavy tunes with what seems like effortless ease. But it's the little details in his vocal phrasing that really sell his songs, like the cool way he says "uh huh" in "Froggy Went a Courtin'" or the gentle rasp that aches through "Toora Loora". And his version of "Waltzing Matilda" may have finally sold me on that song, which I was only kind of "meh" about before.

Hootenanny, Johnny's second CD, includes a few more traditional songs like "Five Little Monkeys" (done in a swinging Stray Cats style with some nice Harmon mute trumpet) and "Miss Mary Mack" (with a hoppin' Cajun backbeat), but focuses more on original songs, which are mostly in the same style as the tunes he covers. I'm not sure that his originals like "Blue Dog", "Best Friend", "Blackberry Pie" or "Owl" will become classics like "If You're Happy and You Know It" or "You Are My Sunshine", but they are very catchy and it's telling that they stand along so well on the same albums as those standards. The only thing that seems a little out of place is the song "Moon" on Stomp Yer Feet! It's a great song on its own, but the style is more modern and feels a little unusual among the rest of the traditional tunes on that CD.

I'm all for people doing something unique with their music and finding their own creative voice, and though Johnny Bregar's songs would seem to hearken way back to days of yore and territory that is oft-covered, I'm not aware of anyone else doing kids' music, traditional or otherwise, with his kind of style and soul. Bravo, Johnny!

Johnny Bregar website

Sunday, June 03, 2007

My Not So Imaginary Rhino

So, I broke my arm last Tuesday saving a family of chipmunks from a giant grizzly bear. No, not really... I was actually arm- wrestling Arnold Schwarzenegger, and after I beat him I jumped up and went "woo hoo!" and slammed my arm into the ceiling. No, not really... I actually missed the landing when coming out of the back of a pickup truck while helping a neighbor move their new grill. But I was happy with how many kids at the schools I performed at this week chose the Arnold story when I gave them those options to choose from. Yeah, they know I could take the Governator...

I was a little worried when that happened as far as whether I'd be able to do my shows well enough in the coming weeks. Fortunately, The Invisible Band is versatile and able to cover for me on guitar for most songs, and I do have enough movement in my right hand to strum chords very feebly for a song or two each show, though I can't finger-pick like I usually would for things like "The Elephant Song". One problem is that I can't really clap my hands (well, I can but it hurts like heck and you can't really hear any "clap") or hold a leaky squirt gun or do a few of the other things that would normally be part of my show. Thankfully, my wife, Roseann, is a great costume designer and is willing to be a mascot performer when needed, and she happened to have a nice new rhino costume that we'd used for some recent school promotions, so she did a great job filling in and helping out. (Many thanks also to Rachel from the Auburn library for helping to watch our girls while Roseann was busy rhino-ing, and thanks again to SunWest Sportswear for the cool T-shirt for the rhino.) I'm not sure that the rhino will be able to appear for all of my upcoming gigs, but it did buy me some time to adjust my show as needed and gain a little more strength in the arm.

So I have to apologize again for the lack of updates here. I did have a list of new features ready to go including John Hadfield, Mr. Billy, Johnny Bregar, Monty Harper and Randy Newman. But then of course this happened and it's really tedious to type with just one hand, especially when that hand is your left hand and you're not left-handed. I did find a really cool voice recognition program online that translates your speech into text, so I'll be using that for the next while to get some things done. The program works really well but it does have to get used to your speech patterns, and it doesn't do the best job with things like people's names, so I have to go back and edit a few things. For example, here is what this previous phrase was supposed to be -
So I have to apologize again for the lack of updates here. I did have a list of new features ready to go including John Hadfield, Mr. Billy, Johnny Bregar, Monty Harper and Randy Newman. And here's how the program translated that section - Zeile left of college as a gang for the lack of tape here any analyst and it features ready to delegate in John Hatfield Mr. Killeen Johnny breakdown money harbor and randy Manning. Actually, to be honest, that's what happened when Roseann did it... It has learned my speech patterns pretty well by now and so it got that part very close when I originally dictated it (the only differences were "Johnny Brady Are" instead of Johnny Bregar and "Mr. Bailey" instead of Mr. Billy). But her version was a lot funnier and indicative of how these programs can function until they learn your voice, or until you learn to slow down your speech and be very deliberate with your articulations.

Anyway, I have a lot to be grateful for, particularly that the injury wasn't worse... I landed on my back, but my arm slamming into the ground first broke the fall enough that my back didn't sustain the brunt of it. Also, when I was called to go help my neighbor, I had just been recording the final guitar parts for my upcoming album, so that can still go out soon without further delays. I have many supportive people and rhinos around me to make sure I can continue doing what I need to do. And I got this really awesome itch stick from the hospital. Ahhhhhh, that's the spot!