For the Kiddies: Dan Zanes, Caspar Babypants, The Jimmies

Written by Music

Popdose’s new kindie column features new records from Dan Zanes, Caspar Babypants, and the Jimmies.

There are a lot of kindie artists out there, and a lot of kindie product—much more than I can keep up with in my occasional “Can’t Say No” columns on the genre. Thus, I feel it wise and appropriate to give kindie music a Popdose home of its own. Each one of these “For the Kiddies” columns will cover two or three recent albums, and will, I hope, shine some light on the best and brightest performers in the genre.

I also direct all inquiring minds to our sister site, Dadnabbit, where Popdose poobah Jeff Giles (y’all) makes a habit of writing really good articles on kid-friendly entertainment and interviewing really interesting people responsible for those entertainment options. Where the kiddies are concerned, that site is as good as it gets.

All right, here we go …

Who’da thunk it, back in ’85, when you could see the Del Fuego’s “Don’t Run Wild” video on MTV once a day (at 3:00 AM, but that counts), that the band’s impossibly coiffed lead singer, Dan Zanes, would one day have a huge audience, consisting largely of first graders and their hip parents? If Zanes didn’t start the kindie genre, he is certainly its Elvis—the handsome herald who took an existing music and made it palatable for mainstreamers (in this case, maternal and paternal types) with money to spend.

His new album of “age-desegregated 21st century social music” (his description, not mine, but it works) is called Little Nut Tree (Festival Five Records) and it continues his streak of winning kindie records by featuring tunes that speak kids’ language without talking down to them, while simultaneously giving parents something they can groove to. It’s catchy stuff, and there’s enough indie royalty featured on the thing to keep the hippest of the hipsters happy.

Sharon Jones plays Etta James to Zanes’ Sugar Pie DeSanto on a cover of DeSanto and James’ “In the Basement,” which kicks off the record. The swampy slide guitar is as much a voice on the track as the actual voices, and it gets the party started immediately and correctly. Likewise, “Wake Up Baby!” sees Zanes melding voices with the lovely Shawana “Shine” Kemp, and the funky positivism that results is contagious. Joan Osborne brings her sexy self over to talk up some Saturday night fun in “Everybody’s Gonna Be Happy,” and while the kids might be up for some dancing and singing, when I hear Mizz O., I have something more carnal in mind.

Andrew Bird lends his voice to the fiddle-heavy “I Don’t Need Sunny Skies,” and the interplay (not to mention the whistle solo) works perfectly. I think my favorite piece on the record, though, is its shortest. “Red Tail Hawk” is a gorgeous acoustic meditation on flying; it’s only a minute long, but it contains a symphony’s worth of wonderment and discovery in that brief, beautiful period.

Chris Ballew is another indie rocker turned kindie star; when his band The Presidents of the United States of America aren’t out regaling us with “Lump” and “Peaches,” Ballew wows the little ones as Caspar Babypants. Sing Along! (Aurora Elephant Music) follows last year’s This Is Fun! With a typically silly collection of giggly, fun tunes—just pure joy set to music.

“Bad Blue Jay” kicks things off with a call-and-response tune admonishing the biggest asshole in the avian kingdom for his lousy behavior. We get life from the perspective of a snowflake in “I Wanna Be a Snowman,” which features the bongo stylings of Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard and terrific organ playing throughout. And because it’s a family affair, Ballew’s wife, Kate Endle, gets two co-writes: “My Flea Has Dogs” (with its oompah-oompah rhythm and tongue-tangling list of dog varieties) and “Mister Winter Bee,” a percussive conversation with an out-of-place insect nuisance who, if he hangs around much longer, will die a slow, agonizing death.

The harmony-laden chorus of “Long Long Dream” highlights this zen-like meditation on the big and small things of the universe. The accordion solo from one “Weird Al” Yankovic (who is overdue for a kindie record himself, don’tcha think?) sounds like the coolest merry go round you’ve ever heard. On “Loud and Quiet,” the lovely Frances England provides hushed counterpoint to Ballew’s more volume-heavy stroll through the animal kingdom and its voices. The album closes with “Baby Cloud,” and Ballew cedes the lead vocal to Rachel Loshak. It’s my favorite song on the record, a haunting paean to rainbringers that is full with synths and strings and multitracked harmonies.

Less accomplished than Zanes or Ballew, but no less fun, are the Jimmies, a pop project built around singer Ashley Albert, whose second record, Practically Ridiculous (Pluckypea), shows off a chameleonic knack for sonic mimicry on an energetic, 13-song set.

For an example of how that chameleon thing works, check out “Minivan Hot Rod” and “Fine Art.” The former sounds very No Doubtish, like a Return of Saturn outtake with bloopy keyboards punctuated with distorto-gee-tar chords. Albert gets her Gwen Stefani on, aping Mrs. Rossdale’s Betty Boop inflections almost perfectly. “Fine Art,” a jazzy paean to refrigerator pictures, sees Albert’s voice go completely elastic, stretching over a walking acoustic bass line and a brass section. One voice, two completely divergent uses for it—you’d be forgiven for thinking Albert can do anything.

Less successful is the hip hop cut “Wash Up,” which just sounds derivative, though it does feature one of the greatest lyrics ever written: “Check baby, check baby, scrub-two-three / I have dirt on my ankles and soot on my knees.” True dat. Better is “Every Day’s a Holiday,” which celebrates the ordinary, doing so against backdrops of breakneck punk and slower acoustic strumming. “Laugh in Any Language” has a 10,000 Maniacs vibe, and features lyrics about international cooperation (as 10,000 Maniacs would have). The UN needs to invite the Jimmies to address them, like, now.

The record ends with “Kids Wanna Rock”—sadly, not the Bryan Adams song, but an arena-worthy anthem that mines the same sentiment. “If the kids wanna rock,” Albert sings, “Let ’em rock / Let ’em rock.” Now there’s an outlook I think we can all get behind.