Monday, April 29, 2013

Children's Music That Won't Make Adults Go Insane

While I've been a life-long music fanatic, a collector of too many LPs, CDs and now mp3 files, it has been something of a challenge to find music my five year-old child enjoys that doesn't drive me out of the room.  Seeking common ground, I tried to get my kid into Larry Levan's disco remix of "C is for Cookie"... but it didn't take.  However, I've been lucky enough to find a few CDs which me and my child enjoy, and some of the best of these are available through the Pima County Public Library.
Elizabeth Mitchell's You Are My Little Bird (originally released in 2006) sounds like many other children's CDs if you don't listen too close: acoustic guitar played in a folk-music style, a mixture of gentle adult and kid sing-along vocals, and mid-tempo rhythms underpinning light melodies.  Then around track three, things take an interesting turn as Mitchell starts singing in Japanese.  By the end of the album she and her helpers have offered numbers in Korean and Spanish as well.  Give things a closer listen, and Mitchell's subtle genius really begins to shine.  Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" and the Velvet Underground's "What Goes On" are all here, each respectfully transformed into quality children's music.  The VU as kids music?!

Already well-known among parents and greeting card shoppers, Sandra Boynton not long ago began crafting music for kids.  A hilarious Book/CD combo set, Boo Moo (2007) is a playful and downright goofy romp through doo wop, blues and crooning cows.  My kid loves stomping around to the marching band song here ("We're On Parade"), and has also begun "Singing In The Shower."  The highlight of this CD however, is B. B. King's "One Shoe Blues," which has become a short film and book set (also available here at PCPL).  Here King laments his loss of a shoe when his mother insists he get ready for school.

While Mitchell and Boynton have created children's music that adults might enjoy, what about children's music that children will definitely enjoy ... and adults as well should they care to try?  The answer to this conundrum is Evan Lurie and the Backyardigans.  Evan and his brother Jim are somewhat well-known entertainers, Evan leading his own jazz band (the Lounge Lizards), while Jim, who plays sax, has also appeared in a number of Jim Jarmusch films, most memorably as a small-time crook tossed in a New Orleans parish prison with Roberto Benigni and Tom Waits in Down By Law

Several years ago Evan, with the assistance of Janice Burgess, cooked up an idea for a children's TV show in which a small group of friends sing and dance their way through elaborate, imaginary backyard adventures.  While the plot lines, animation (which uses motion capture technology not unlike that used to bring Gollum to the big screen) and singing are pretty good (Alicia Keys and Cyndi Lauper among others take guest turns), it's the music that really makes the Backyardigans come to life.  Each episode is centered (musically) around a specific genre, with 3 or 4 four songs exploring say, reggae rhythms.  Evan Lurie's songwriting is superb, capturing neatly the cliches of a particular genre while injecting enough life into each to keep things sounding fresh.  From the smooth disco groove of "Robots On A Rampage," the (almost) prog rock stylings of "Not An Egg," or the mind and genre bending country hip hop of "Buffalo Girls & Boys" (based on Neneh Cherry's "Buffalo Gals"), the Backyardigans have got the groove.  There's no limit to the genres the Backyardigans delve into: Bossa Nova, '80s New Wave, dixieland, surf rock, Broadway, ska, salsa, township jive and traditional Irish music, are just a small sample of their range.

But I guess I'll still have to wait a decade or so to spring any Velvet Underground originals on my child....

Here are some links to the music mentioned above:

Elizabeth Mitchell, You Are My Little Bird ...
Sandra Boynton, Blue Moo ...

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