Would you take career advice from a four-year-old?
That’s the question that faced Ilene “Leeny” Altman and Steve “Steve” Equi when Leeny’s nephew, Zak, asked for some new kids’ songs to go along with the ones she’d made up for fun. Not wanting to pass up a challenge, she called up her old college buddy Steve, and the freshly minted duo holed themselves up in his home studio to lay down tracks for what would become the 16 songs that make up Be Nice.
This album stands out in the 2008 kids’ music market because — interestingly enough — it actually sounds like an album for children. I’ve become something of an unintentional kids’ music connoisseur over the last several years, mainly because I acquired a couple pairs of junior-sized ears around the house, and as a result, I’ve been able to acquaint myself with the current crop of family-friendly releases from “grown-up” artists like They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies. Once upon a time, children’s albums were built from downmarket parts — cheesy synths, dippy vocals, and humor that would make anyone over the age of eight groan in pain. That sort of thing has gone out of vogue in the last few years; the mini-revolution sparked by artists like Dan Zanes has prompted a wave of kiddie records that don’t sound appreciably different from anything a parent would buy.
Leeny and Steve kick it old school, though — Be Nice is an identifiably homebrewed album. This is the 21st century, of course, and home studio albums have come a long way since Raffi’s heyday, but you can still hear the record’s humble origins. The similarities to classic kids’ records don’t end there, though — like their forebears, Leeny and Steve use their album as an opportunity to take a whirlwind musical tour; there’s a little rock here, a little country there, even a bit of reggae. None of it sounds particularly authentic, but before Dan Zanes showed up with his smarty-pants global revues, that used to go with the territory.
In a word, the record is dorky. But that’s the point — this is kids’ music. It isn’t for me or you. This point was driven home for me as I watched my two-year-old daughter react to Be Nice — she gasped when she saw the small box of crayons included with the disc, she cracked up when she heard the third track, “Stinky Diaper” (download), and she sat on my wife’s lap as the album played, poring over the lyrics and pictures in the booklet. My daughter has always loved music — my old iPod is docked in an iHome unit on her dresser, stuffed with dozens of kids’ albums — but I’ve never seen an album hold her attention right away like this. Matter of fact, she’s listening to Be Nice in her room as I write this.
It certainly isn’t as parent-friendly as some of the other titles sitting on the racks in the children’s section these days, but so what? What it lacks in hip appeal, it more than makes up with good old-fashioned cuddliness. If you’re looking for a batch of fun new songs for the young ones in your life, take a listen to Be Nice. It’s already been given two thumbs up by at least one very picky two-year-old.