Some of the first responses I received to my initial call for reader submissions to this column were for children’s music. In my house, children’s music meant playing Shirley Horn’s “Here’s to Life” before my son went to sleep each night, and Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” each time he balked at doing something the wife and I told him to do (“Mommy’s all right, Daddy’s all right, now eat your goddamned carrots!”). Oh, sure, the Wiggles had gotten some play (there was a Crowded House connection there) and one or another Nickelodeon program would have a catchy tune he’d sing ad nauseum. But by two years old, my boy could mime along with “Baba O’Reilly” and “We Will Rock You,” and by three he knew several tracks off KISS’ Creatures of the Night and could distinguish between the original studio version of Sabbath’s “Paranoid” the live version on Ozzy’s Tribute record.
He likes Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber now. Go figure.
So, as I said, I received a number of kiddie music requests right off the bat, which is fine, cuz I’m not all that familiar with the genre. I’m going to reserve a full future column for the Hipwaders (my absolute favorite of the initial requests—they are quite awesome), in part to allow space to focus on each of their records. That leaves me with two other reader suggestions: Birdie Mendoza and Milkshake.
Birdie’s Playhouse is Mendoza’s contribution to the genre—a wildlife-themed program/concept record for kids ages 1 to 5. Mendoza—who once sang backup for Ray Charles under her real name, Michele Moreno—leads her own Latin/jazz band in addition to taking the Playhouse to schools, parties, and other kiddie-friendly venues. She has a smooth voice that is a rather elastic instrument, moving from sultry-bordering-on-inappropriate-for-minors (translation: I thought it was sexy) to an almost Shelley Duvall-like squeak that’s all too appropriate for the little ones.
I imagine the record more or less presents Mendoza’s live program in recorded format, from the greeting-all-animals welcome of “Hello Song” to the fond farewell of “Goodbye Song.” One immediately senses how kids can groove to “Iguana Wants to Baila,” whose singalong chorus lodges into the head and takes root there. It also sets the stage for much of what is to follow—snazzy jazz rhythms and cute lyrics about animals and their habitats, with the occasional message to be nice to furry creatures for the wee ones to think about.
I dug “Shake Your Tail Feathers,” with its reggae groove and slinky wordless vocal intro each verse. Am I wrong to say the wordless vocal sounds sexy? Well, it does. So arrest me. No, I’m just kidding—don’t arrest me, not in front of the children. The chorus breaks down into “Shake, shake, shake” chant, and I can imagine a roomful of kids moving their tookuses to the left and right as fast as they can. And then Mendoza starts back into the wordless vocal thing, and I feel guilty all over again.
Less sexy is the 30-second “Monkey Chant,” which features Birdie “ooh-ooh-ah”-ing like, well, a monkey. The point here, I suppose, is to get a classroom full of three-year-olds to join along, turning the venue into a Wild Kingdom episode, however briefly.
Guest vocalist Billy Valentine plays the title role in “Elephant in the Congo,” and injects more than a little soul to lines like “My voice is loud, my trunk is long-o.” Then, we get a little public service message that I can’t help but think is aimed at the kiddies’ parents, and not the kiddies themselves:
There was a time when I didn’t have to worry
The land was plenty, there was no war or fury
Then the humans started making a fuss
Now they want my precious tusk
Please do not buy any ivory
If you do, they will keep after me.
Yikes! Shake your tail feathers to that, Doo-bees! And Ma, hide the ivory necklace ’til the party’s over.
The kiddie hits keep on comin’. “You Can’t Catch Me,” with its bouncy, name-checking lyrics and chorus harmonies, sounds one amped-up drum beat away from being a B-52s outtake. It’s energetic and fun, and one of the best songs on the record. “Oh When the Ants” is a silly/fun take on “When the Saints Go Marching In,” complete with muted trumped and a declaiming background vocal by someone named J’nae. I hear Birdie’s sorta nasal vocal, though, and I can’t help to think of a certain Mellowmas subject who once served as a teller of fairy tales.
“Fiddler Crab Rap” is, as promised, a rap by someone pretending to be a crab. “Manatee Mo” is a faux country talker. “Wombat Scat” finds Birdie going back to the wordless vocal, but it sounds less sexy than trumpet-like. I do not feel like shaking my tail feather, or anything else, for that matter.
Overall, aside from the rather heavy-handed message of “Elephant in the Congo,” Birdie’s Playhouse works as an entertaining diversion for the youngest of the young ‘uns. The adults in the house might also want to check out Mendoza/Moreno’s Latin jazz band’s site for music of a more grown-up nature (be sure to listen to the snippet of “Angel Eyes” while you’re there).
Faithful Popdose reader CharmCityMa and I go back a long way, and I know she’d never steer me wrong. She hipped me to Milkshake, a combo based in Baltimore that, according to Charmie, “perform at all the ‘cool’ kids events in the city.” What she didn’t tell me is that Milkshake not only makes music for kids—they are, in fact, a slammin’ rock band that makes music for kids.
The band’s Web site lists four albums to their credit; the most recent one, Great Day, can stand up well against some more grown-up rock records I’ve heard recently. Take the album’s leadoff track, “Shake It Up,” which sounds perfectly suited for Little Steven’s Underground Garage show. Lyrically, it’s perfect for five-year-olds and those who still have an inner five-year-old:
The band is jamming
Friends are coming by to play.
It’s another beautiful day.
So shake it up!
But what’s this in the middle eight? A message of empowerment?
There’s no limit to the cool things we can do (keep thinking—always thinking)
Put our heads together, find a new way to the moon! (no limit—just begin it.)
Cause when you color outside the lines
Guarantee you’ll find a new design
You might see the world in a brand new light (that’s right)
Eat your heart out, Anthony Robbins! Bet you don’t even know what a Bm chord looks like, beeyotch! This is the kind of song you don’t mind the kids crankin’ up on the living room stereo they’re not supposed to touch.
The potential hits continue. “Happy Place” is a jaunty, crunchy tune for those days when one just wants to curl up in the fetal position and not deal with other humans. Sure, it’s a set of sensations all adults feel at least three or four times a week, but Milkshake never lets you forget they’re talking to the kiddies:
Woke up fell out of my bed, yeah
Can’t find a thing to wear
And it looks like I’m gonna be late for school again.
Mom’s yelling, dog is barking
Eggs are cold and it’s going too far when
I have to wait for the bus in the rain.
They know, however, that there is hope to be found somewhere:
We all need to find our way.
Somewhere where we can all feel safe.
I’m going to my Happy Place
Where everything’s okay
It’s a sunny day
I’m in my Happy Place.
Granted, my happy place (at the Sinkhole Saloon, hovering over a snakebite and a beer) and my ten-year-old’s (sitting in front of an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants he’s seen 20 times) are completely different. Still, Milkshake finds the universal aspects of this feeling, and even the violence which often results from it:
Reach out and hit somebody
But I can’t cause that would be naughty.
So I keep it inside—someone tell me a joke!
How many bar fights could be avoided, if someone would just tell the instigator a joke? The members of Milkshake, I realize, are wise beyond their years, wiser even than their target demographic (kids might just seem stupid, but they’re really little Buddhas).
My favorite, though, is “Statue of Me,” which occupies the opposite pole from two of my favorite pieces of literature: Shelley’s “Ozymandias” and Matthew Sweet’s “Someone to Pull the Trigger.” In the former, Shelley mocks the arrogance of political power as it is rendered ephemeral by the constant forward motion of history, and the ability of history to turn even the greatest of kingdoms to dust, and the statues raised in tribute to once-mighty leaders into “vast and trunkless legs of stone.”
Milkshake’s Lisa Mathews sings “If there was a statue of me / I wonder what the reason would be.” She lists possibilities: discovering new worlds, creating a “funky food-making machine,” finding ways to make the air cleaner, helping people “The magic of the starry skies / or mysteries of the deep blue sea.”
The song also opens its listeners (ostensibly, children) to the possibilities of life before them:
All I imagine and all I do
I never know what will be.
But I’m starting to think it might true
No one else is just like me.
This reminded me of the wonderfully jaded line in the chorus of Sweet’s “Trigger”: “Everything I’ll ever be, I’ve been.” Sung by a man in his late twenties, apparently too tired and/or beaten down to think he’ll ever amount to anything more than what he is, “Trigger” resonated with other disaffected twentysomethings of the time (this writer included). The amusing part is, of course, that for most of us, the line is a lie. Seventeen years after “Trigger,” I’ve become something different than what I was, something better; so has CharmCityMa; so has Matthew Sweet; so, probably, have you. In this case, the sunnier outlook wins out. That’s a gift Baltimore’s Milkshake gives us all, gives our kids. That they couch their positivity in awesome garage rock and classic pop arrangements is just icing on a very sweet cake.
Many thanks to CharmCityMa for her suggestion, and to Birdie Mendoza for sending me her cool record. Next time, I’ll take on a colleague’s suggestion and discuss a new album of Indian devotional music, played by a Jewish dude from Long Island.