Monday, December 18, 2006

The Kids Are All Right

by Richard Klin
photo by Lily Prince

There is a lurking fear -- albeit a minor one -- that plagues parents and parents-to-be. It’s the fear of music -- or, more precisely, being subject to that inevitable, inescapable barrage of child-friendly tunes. It is quite the irony that a generation raised on loud, sometimes ear-splitting music takes their place as parents and then has to banish their own music for mellow, happy kids’ songs. Out goes the treasured vintage Stones collection. In comes “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt” and lots of Barney.

But it ain’t, as they say, necessarily so. Kids’ music has evolved since the days when I played my treasured Munsters album over and over. As the concertgoing generation evolves into the child-rearing generation, music for the younger set has too evolved. Kids’ music is no longer synonymous with saccharine-sweet melodies that serve only to entrance the children -- but leave the parents holding their ears.

I recently and unscientifically sampled five CDs of kid-oriented music. They were chosen at random and are not meant to be any type of representational grouping. The musical styles and approaches all differed wildly. But all had one thing in common: they all managed to break through the narrow confines of what has been considered “typical” child-friendly fare. All five examples blurred -- consciously or not -- the boundaries between children’s music and just plain music.

I then put all this music through its paces, subjecting it to rigorous testing with a demanding, no-nonsense consumer focus group: our daughter, Stella, age two and a half, and her peers Rylie Sasha, Asker, Jonah and Morgan. They gathered together to listen, respond, eat raisins, and -- when the spirit moved them -- to dance.

Fans of WFMU, New York-New Jersey’s legendary freeform radio station, praise the station with the fervor of the true believer. It is not surprising, then, that a station as innovative as FMU would carry original, unpredictable children’s programming.

Greasy Kid Stuff -- only recently on hiatus -- was the musical and programming brainchild of spouses (and parents) Hova Najarian and Belinda Miller. The show dug deep into the pop grab-bag of oldies, novelty songs, bands off the beaten path and hummable, updated anthems from Schoolhouse Rock, Captain Kangaroo, and Underdog. It’s a concept so good that it’s a real wonder nobody has mined this material for little ears before. Songs Inside the Radio and the companion More Songs from Inside the Radio (Confidential Recordings) are a fun smattering of Belinda and Hova’s best.

The gentle, Hawaii-inflected ukuleles of “Monkey Brian” by the Hoppin’ Haole Brothers was a big hit with our test group, as was Guv’ner’s clap-along remake of 1959’s “Lucky Ladybug.” “Chicken: Impossible” by the aptly-named Nutley Brass is a poultry-chorused update of the Mission: Impossible theme that our bunch loved (as did I) along with the infectious “Aba-Dabba-Do-Dance” by T. Lance and the Coctails.

“Most of the music we play,” says Belinda, “wasn’t actually intended for children per se--but by placing the songs in a different context they became kids’ music. It seemed like a good idea.”
Parents were “casting about for some kind of alternative culture to share with their kids, and so our show has struck a chord with a lot of them ... for us the test remains: Is this something we’d listen to ourselves whether we had kids or not?”

Greasy Kid Stuff’s rocking quirkiness may be lost on the smallest of the small fry. Much of the show’s louder music is geared more to the school-age set. But both compilations are funny, original, very hummable and highly recommended.

Dog on Fleas has a certain well-deserved renown in New York’s Hudson Valley and points beyond. With any justice, this renown should spread to points far, far beyond. The band’s live performances--including a sanitized version of Hot Chocolate’s retro classic “You Sexy Thing”--can spur this father to pick up his young daughter and cavort in full, public view.
The key, perhaps, to Dog on Fleas’ listenability is a real musical virtuosity. Accordingly, the eclectic music is simultaneously tight and playful with lyrics both fun and thoughtful. When I Get Little (self-released) is an album with easy appeal across the age spectrum.

Dog on Fleas is a band, happily, hard to pin down. The Cajun-style “Mon Pain Pedu”--sung in French--was a big hit with our test group, as was the Ska-influenced “What’s Behind the Wall.” Dog on Fleas run the gamut of musical influences: fiddle music, call-and-response, jazz, ballads--all make an appearance without losing cohesion or focus.

The child-friendly music is fused to intelligent lyrics. “What’s Behind the Wall,” for example, dares to reference the timeless “I see London/I see France” with musings on Katmandu and Mogadishu.

Probably everyone involved with children’s music is aware of the pitfalls of talking (or singing) down to children, but how about talking up? Is there ever the danger in being too literate or inventive? “No,” Fleasman Dean Jones answers emphatically. When he writes a song, there’s often the opportunity to include a “curveball for kids and adults” both. There is the freedom to “throw in something that will go over kids’ heads--or my wife’s.” The fun is adding “a little twist. Eventually somebody might get it.”

Dog on Fleas walk the creative tightrope of child-like music that isn’t childish. When I Get Little maintains its focus throughout, and children and parents should give it a listen.

The Hipwaders are a Bay-area power-pop trio, specially modified for the younger set. The Hipwaders are a lot of fun to listen to, so much so that I used my daughter as an excuse to play the songs over and over. There’s a seventies/retro timbre in the most listenable sense. The Hipwaders can be viewed as cooler friends of the Archies ... who went and formed their own band. It is easy to conjure up a double bill with the Hipwaders and Josie and the Pussycats.
These connotations are no surprise. Bandmate Tino Uquillas was, since childhood, “a huge Beatles fan” who also grew up loving “the Monkees, Archies, Banana Splits and the Partridge Family.” Moving into the teen years, his listening tastes evolved into “the whole punk rock/new wave” scene and the “influence of old cartoons.”

Adding to the appeal is while the band’s rockish tempos are the antithesis of plastic, pro-forma children’s music, the lyrics are upfront and unabashedly about kids. Our little group of music testers loved the danceable opening number, “Come Along With Us,” which invites all within listening range to come join the Hipwader caravan. “Messy Room Blues”--all about, obviously, one’s messy room--brought back some unfortunate personal memories. “Twitchy” is another easy-to-relate to ode to not being able to sit still. “Stand Up to the Bully!” is a nice exhortation to do exactly that. (Inspired, no doubt, that Tino “truly remembers [painfully!] what being young is all about,” including the “feelings, fears, and interests...”) The Hipwaders closes with the genuinely affecting, Beach Boys-flavored “Valentine.”

The album--and the group itself--are a poppy, happy revelation.

Elizabeth Mitchell’s folk-oriented You Are My Little Bird (Smithsonian Folkways) is a welcome rejuvenation of the folk idiom -- a genre that has attained institutional status. Listening to Mitchell’s engaging songs brings on a simple, startling revelation: the original premise of this music was that it was conceived as music for folk -- people from all corners. Accordingly, Mitchell picks familiar sources such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie but also offers the wonderful Japanese “Zousan (Little Elephant)”, French and Korean music, and -- in a real act of genre busting -- reworkings of Bob Marley, Neil Young and the Velvet Underground. How did she happen to deem such unorthodox choices as kid-friendly? Children’s music, says Mitchell, “is a door of possibility for me -- like the minds and hearts of the children I sing for, it’s wide open. Children don’t know that they are supposed to like only one kind of music,” she accurately observes. “They haven’t committed themselves to fit into a genre yet!”

Fortuitously, You Are My Little Bird opens with one of Stella’s all-time favorites, “Little Liza Jane.” Our focus group as a whole loved the rockabilly-inspired guitar of “Who’s My Pretty Baby” and the easy-to-hum “Little Bird, Little Bird.” The album was co-produced by Warren Defever, who with his own band, His Name is Alive, has offered up stark, evocative music of his own. There is a haunting quality throughout the album (“Buckeye Jim”) and some of the songs are augmented by the strains of some very young, wonderfully unformed voices. “When I hear a sense of wonder in a song,” Mitchell relates, “I hear the possibility of singing it for children.” Not a bad criterion for an album.

The Vancouver-based Duplex! is the rare kids’-music ensemble that actually features ... kids. Ablum by Duplex! --yes, that’s the spelling -- boasts the musical talents of a three- , eleven- , and twelve-year-old, along with parents. (Mint Records) If the Hipwaders are akin to a latter-day Archies, Duplex! come across as those super-smart students who easily polish off their homework, leaving lots of time for prank phone calls -- augmented by adults who probably spent too much time listening to Frank Zappa. Ablum is a funny, eccentric work.

Band member Veda Hille is correct when she opines that “having children in [the band] makes the whole thing quite distinct,” and the “adults ... change their playing, which is good.” The impetus for the multi-generational sound “came about ... because they are our kids, and we wanted to make music with them and for them. It seems more authentic than having adults decide what kids want to hear. Some of my favorite tracks on the album were written by the children.”

Our focus group loved the bouncy “Salad Song,” although too young to grasp the anti-vegetable lyrics: “eat your salad/tastes like dirt/eat your salad/then get dessert.” It’s sure to raise the hackles of green-loving parents and educators -- precisely the point, I imagine. “Mr. Slim” is a danceable three minutes with typical oddball lyrics concerning the globetrotting Mr. Slim. Schoolhouse Rock appears to be an irresistable well to draw from, and Duplex! offers a melodic, pretty “Figure 8.” The troupe closes Ablum with--believe it or not--”Pooing and Peeing.” No further explanation needed.

Ablum by Duplex! isn’t by any stretch a run-of-the-mill kids’ collection. Things have changed quite a bit since “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.”

I learned quite a bit about, to me, what was a previously unfamiliar genre. It was a series of pleasant surprises and discoveries. Childrens’ music has, these past years, clearly grown by leaps and bounds. Both parent and child can get equal pleasure out of listening -- no small accomplishment. As I mentioned, my listening samples covered some broad styles. What they had in common was talent. Something quite new has been created.

Richard Klin lives in New York’s Hudson Valley. His writing has appeared in the Forward, Brooklyn Rail, LiP, Parabola, and others.

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