We must prove ourselves worthy of our children. We must make sure they have the self-esteem needed to keep their heads up, to gird themselves in the armor of whatever they need to be girded with to face a big, bad world and its more intimidating personages and institutions. And I don’t mean self-esteem of the “everybody gets a trophy” variety; I mean the real stuff, the positive self-impressions of their worth—to their friends, families, schools, and selves—repeated over and over again until it becomes second nature. There are too many people and entities out there that are all too ready to put the kiddies down. At very least, such reinforcement makes for miserable kids; its harshest extreme can be very harsh, indeed.
Recess Music, a record company dedicated, in their words, “to helping kids value a world that is wise, fair, and generous-hearted,” have created a series of compilation albums that act as counterprogramming to the self-esteem-sapping tendencies of the day-to-day. It’s called “Best Foot Forward,” and it features, to date, two collections—Big Bully (which came out this past April) and U R Some 1, which drops tomorrow. Parents of children ages 11 and under need to check these out—there’s some great music there, and a message to kids that is beyond crucial.
Big Bully, as its title suggests, focuses on intimidating behavior and its root causes. The Uncle Brothers‘ alliterative “Bully Bubba” sets the mood perfectly, giving voice to a voiceless, bullied kid, using a country shuffle to make the story of the titular bully’s rise and downfall a fun, entertaining ride. Mary Kaye provides a different perspective from a couple angles in “Mean Ogre,” a Joni Mitchell-ish romp in which a grumpy, bullying girl is compelled to explain herself.
Those are fine, but the real killer tunes come from three of the usual suspects—high-quality tracks from high-quality performers. The great Hipwaders contribute “Time in Time Out,” a sweet acoustic pop tune about the ultimate punishment—just a chair, a corner, a grade-school perp, and his thoughts. Milkshake’s “Enemies” explores the strange chemistry of childhood friendships—the real Type A/Type B personalities whose very dysfunction binds them (and there’s more than a little Dar Williams in Lisa Mathews’ voice, which is all right with me). And Renee & Jeremy’s amazing “Wishing Well”—a Number One smash in the parallel universe existing only inside my head—grooves with an empowering message and snaking, gorgeous harmonies, to close the record.
Kiddie empowerment is the theme of two of the record’s weaker tracks (the bland but catchy hip-hop of Lyle Cogen’s “No Put Downs” and J.P. Taylor & the Academics‘ message-heavy “I Can Make a Difference”), but also one of its strongest, Janet’s Planet’s “One and Only Me.” That track unfolds like a fine Eighties R&B ballad, complete with enchanting harmony vocals and lyrics that extol the virtues of taking pride in oneself.
Empowerment is also the theme of the U R Some 1 collection, the second in the “Best Foot Forward” series. Again, the first track on the record—The Happy Crowd’s “U R U”—sets things up nicely, with it’s simple chorus (“You are unique / You are so wonderful / You are the tops / Because U R U”) and kid-positive message. Things ramp up a bit with Katherine Dines‘ “It’s Amazing What You Can Do with Your Brain,” which marries Dines’ folksy soprano voice with a spiky soprano sax, in the service of a lyric that praises the virtues of intelligence and imagination.
U R Some 1, more than Big Bully, intersperses goofy, fun tunes like Anna Moo’s “You’re an Animal, Too” (with its classic Fifties vibe and toe-tapping rhythm) and Slugs and Bugs‘ country hoedown “Piggy Little Toes” with more serious fare, like Palo Colorado’s “Still Small Voice.” The band’s acoustic paean to following one’s intuition has an important message, but does not talk down to the listener, nor smack the poor bugger over the head with it. Not so the late Lisa Atkinson’s “Arms are for Hugging,” whose anti-war, pro-environment messages seem geared more for parents than the kids at whom those messages are theoretically aimed. That two-by-four hurts when it hits the skull, you know?
I’m partial to The Coles‘ “Put Your Happy Face On”—a simple song about the virtues and pleasures of happiness, sung by a terrific female voice (Deena Cole, you are awesome) over lovely keyboards straight out of Andrew Gold’s “Lonely Boy.” Also quite diggable is singer/songwriter/Bob Dylan son-in-law Peter Himmelman, whose silly/cool “Feet” cranks up the big band horns and background vocals to great effect (whether the song can be a gateway drug to more adult Himmelman tracks like “Name” remains to be seen, but may be well worth a study or three). Swingset Mamas close the record with “Great to Be Me,” a sweet, understated anthem that concludes the theme on a strong, pleasant note.
Recess Music produces another series, as well—the environmentally themed “Celebrate Earth” series, whose fine fourth compilation, Wild Child, was released in August. One can only hope more “Best Foot Forward” collections are on the way. These days, we can really use them.