For years — in fact, until fairly recently — children’s music was where songwriting talent went to die. Most albums made with kids in mind were too schmaltzy to appeal to anyone over the age of six, and even the genre’s better artists — like, say, Raffi — had very little appeal outside their target demographic. In the last 10-15 years, however, the children’s album has become a rite of passage for critically respected, low-selling bands with a lot of fans in their 30s. Nettwerk has released a trio of kiddie compilations (For the Kids, volumes 1-3) using new tracks by artists like Guster, Barenaked Ladies, and David Mead to benefit the Save the Music Foundation. They Might Be Giants have released a pair of well-received collections aimed at the younger set (but, as I can personally attest, not without plenty of adult charm). Barenaked Ladies just released their first kids’ record. Power-pop demigod Jason Falkner is even releasing a sequel to his terrific Bedtime with the Beatles album this summer. You get the idea.
(Fairness dictates that we give partial credit for this mini-movement to Kenny Loggins, who briefly staved off commercial irrelevancy with his Return to Pooh Corner album in ’94. But who ever said Popdose was fair?)
Brooklyn’s Astrograss may not have the national profile that some of these other acts boast, but they’re well-known in their own neck of the woods, having played out consistently for years and steadily built a reputation as one of the Northeast’s best newgrass acts. Given that all four of the band’s members are teachers, it was just a matter of time before they started branching off into children’s music; with Let Me Stay Up All Night, they follow up their maiden tunes-for-tots voyage, a Dan Zanes-produced collection of Shel Silverstein poems set to music.
They forego the Silverstein this time around, but Let Me Stay Up All Night is still heavy on the band’s unplugged charm, offering up 16 tracks of prime, often very funny acoustic music with plenty of mandolin, violin, and rootsy harmonies. (On some tracks, like “Have It the Earth’s Way” [download], they sound a lot like Nickel Creek.)
The album probably isn’t wacky or catchy enough to appeal to really young kids — my two-year-old lost interest soon after the second track, a cover of “Drunken Sailor” (download) — and it might actually be too long for slightly older kids. There’s no arguing with the tremendous musicianship on display here, however, and if you’re interested in educating your kids about things like conservation and sustainable living, the band does a fair amount of kid-friendly preaching about green causes. “The Brooklyn Neighborhood Song” is an added bonus for residents of, well, Brooklyn.
It’s probably unlikely to displace recent entries from the genre’s big names on your youngster’s playlist, but parents looking to build a library of stuff the whole family can enjoy would do well to sample Astrograss’ wares.