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


Saints and Spinners said...

It's a time-honored tradition for the younger generation to embrace the music that has the older generation cringing. There are always the music executives that try to cash on on this. Remember that scene with George Harrison in "A Hard Day's Night?" The exec tells a defiant George, "Of course [the products are] grotty you wretched nit, that's why they were designed! But that's what you'll want." But I digress...

I've got a pretty good ear for what I think my daughter will like, but am not sure about anyone else's kid. Hey, at the last gig, when I said, "I'm going to play another song for you to dance to," one kids said, "I don't WANNA 'nother dance song." I thought he was crazy. How can you not want another dance song? I thought. But there you do-- my brain wasn't his brain.

Anonymous said...

Good for people to know.