While I’ll refrain from discussing this music in alphabetical order by title or artist’s name, I do feel the need to start us off with something that contains the word aardvark, namely Music for Aardvarks and Other Mammals‘ new record, All I Want (no label). M4A&OM, as the act is known in my head, is the brainchild of David Weinstone, self-proclaimed “Berklee College of Music-trained ex-punk rocker,” who created M4A&OM as an “alternative” music class for kids in 1997. Lauded by parents as diverse in their day jobs as Jon Stewart, Page McConnell, Helen Hunt, and Philip Glass, the program now has a worldwide reach, and a presence on such kid-centric outlets as Nick Jr.
Weinstone’s music is worth all the laudin’. “I Want a Puppy,” the first full song on All I Want, mimics Bob Dylan’s talking blues songs, and it’s funny as hell, particularly if you make the Dylan connection (I dare you to close your eyes and think of Zimmy singing a line like, “Even clean up his stinky poo” and not laugh). “Mighty Milo” is a song about a superhero, complete with fuzzy power pop guitars and keyboards, and it charms just like the best power pop. Singer Michelle Casillas brings a tasty change of timbre to several songs, one of them the snazzy, jazzy “Hey There Little Birdy.” My favorite, though, is the album’s title track, with its faux “Teen Spirit” riffage and surprising punk vibe, that I imagine might be a little tough for young, unsuspecting ears. All told, though, All I Want is a solid, diverse listen, and Weinstone an obvious master of multiple genres, though he remains tuned in to what the chilluns out there dig.
Though I’m hopelessly Gentile, I am not immune to the joy expressed by Doni Zassloff Thomas in her guise as Mama Doni—sort of a Yiddish Kirsty MacColl—on her latest release, Shabbat Shaboom (Mama Doni Productions). Thomas has an original and quite cool concept, bringing Jewish culture and Mommy humor together in a variety of musical environments. The flat-out rock of the title track is attention-grabbing stuff, and Thomas slides effortlessly from that into the island groove of “Mazel Tov” in just a couple songs. There are lessons to be learned here, too—”The Bat Mitzvah” is a terrific tale of sibling jealousy, sung to a klezmer lilt. And it’s nice to finally know how to spell fahklempt, and—bonus!—to have a neat little soul ditty of the same name to sing while spelling it. Shabbat Shaboom is a fun, funky dance through an unfamiliar (for me) set of cultural references, and should be fun to play next time you invite the whole mishpocha over for blintzes and holishkes.
My vote for favorite album art of the stuff I’m reviewing here belongs to Billy Kelly‘s The Family Garden, and it’s all stuff Kelly himself created—whimsical, hand-drawn flowers, characters, and text that entertain you before you ever pop the disc into the player. Once you do, you’re treated to a loose, mostly acoustic set of songs about food, animals, whistling, scatting, and other topics of utmost importance to the kiddies (think The Basement Tapes, for an audience of kindergartners).
The title track—a paean to family togetherness and the importance of working together in the dirt—sets the stage for the vibe throughout. “We Could Be Pen Pals”—a duet with Lunch Money vocalist Molly Ledford—is sweet, if a bit outdated (dude, there’s email now). “Why Is the Moon Following Me?” is a question most kids ask at some point, and Kelly addresses it while dropping some science. Literally—he spikes the song with lunar trivia that educates as well as entertains. “That Old American Flag” is a terrific story-song about a father and son erecting a flagpole at their home, sort of the antidote to something like “Cats in the Cradle.” Oh, and he covers the B-52’s “Rock Lobster.” Anyone who introduces Fred Schneider to a new generation is okay by me.
Although its subject matter reminds me of the worst family vacation I ever got dragged on, DidiPop‘s DidiPop Goes to Hawaii (Treetop) is a pleasant collection of breezy pop songs about our beloved fiftieth state. “Wowie Gazowie (Goin’ to Maui)” starts the record with summery, multi-tempo tuneage. It sets the template for rest of the record—you hear ukulele, lap steel, acoustic guitar, and the lovely, playful voice of DidiPop (Deborah Poppink to her friends) herself. The languid “The Keiki Hula” is a slow-motion grass skirt-shaker, just as any good hula song should be. The real treat to these ears, though, is “Isabella Is,” a reggae-fied day in the life of a six-year-old that is happy and poppy, just like the rest of the record.
Funniest thing about DidiPop Goes to Hawaii? The bulk of it was recorded in Nashville. ‘Twas produced by Poppink and Brad Jones, the guy who helmed my two favorite Josh Rouse records (1972 and, naturally, Nashville—the one with “Sad Eyes”). You can hear a stream of the entire record at her Web site. I highly recommend you check ‘er out.
Jamie Broza, the artist behind such kindie klassics as Bad Mood Mom and the unfortunately titled My Daddy is Scratchy, recently released his latest, I Want a Dog (Good Mood). A kind of concept record without much of a concept, I Want a Dog intersperses funny skits with Latin-tinged songs about being the new kid at school, visiting foreign countries, and how much it sucks to be told “No.” The title track—with its low-register, almost talky vocal and snaky slide guitar—sounds like nothing else on the album, but it’s the most earnest toe-tapper of the record’s 17 tracks. Though the wonderfully titled “Birthday Parties Always End in Tears” sounds like it could be a Morrissey cover, it’s not—it’s more of a samba, with a story in the voice of a child who realizes even the happiest of birthdays can have its gray-clouded moments.
The killer track, though, is “Sisters,” a beautiful ballad about sibling relations, both in love and in rivalry. With a piano-based melody reminiscent of classic Elton John or Paul Simon, the little-girl narrator alternates between affectionate proclamations for her sister, and thinly veiled threats if that sister absconds with her stuff. At once funny and poignant, “Sisters” closes the musical portion of I Want a Dog on a wistful note.
Finally, there’s Joanie Leeds and the Nightlights‘ album, What a Zoo! (Limbostar). Whenever I do one of these roundups, there’s always at least one act or artist I think could be a star in the world of more grown-up music—a slammin’ rock band like Milkshake or The Not-Its, for example, or a solid singer/songwriter like Frances England. This time around, Joanie Leeds is my pick. What a Zoo, which drops April 12, is an album full of animal songs that could, in another lyrical context, be a great adult pop record.
As it is, the young ‘uns have plenty to enjoy. A song like “Mosquitoes” perfectly states kiddie concerns about bugs and getting bitten. Her renditions of classic folk songs like “Froggie Went A-Courtin’,” “Pony Boy,” and “Wimoweh” are given distinctive arrangements and are laden with sweet harmonies (and, in the case of “Froggie,” a rap, by Secret Agent 23 Skidoo). And her cover of Phish’s “Possum” should get her free admission to any of the band’s summer shows.
Through it all, Leeds’ voice comes through like a kindie Patty Griffin, albeit with a touch of talky affectation that is standard for children’s artists. The Nightlights’ accompaniment is spirited and sympathetic, and the original songs on the album are sprightly and fun. Give Leeds some lyrics about heartbreak, drinking, or the state of the world to wrap her voice around, and this band could inject some new blood into the “No Depression”/Americana scene.
That’ll do it for this rugrat rock roundup. Next time, friends, at long last, I will put pen to paper in praise of the Beatles of the genre, the kindie kings, the one and only, mighty, mighty Hipwaders. See ya in a couple.
- Rob Smith Can’t Say No: Justin Bieber, “Never Say Never” (popdose.com)
- Songs in the key of glee: Music for Aardvarks classes bond parents, young kids through fun (commercialappeal.com)
- Rob Smith Can’t Say No: Holly Conlan, “Fascinator” (popdose.com)
- Time Out: From Children’s Music To Children’s Books (newyork.cbslocal.com)