Thursday, June 28, 2018

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo Lives the Dream

Sometimes winning a Grammy can be a career-defining moment – cementing a longstanding reputation, demonstrating that a performer has won over peers, or accomplishing a significant goal with their work. Other times, major awards trap artists, who constantly revisit the same ground, lest they disappoint critics and fans alike.

Secret Agent 23 Skidoo earned a reputation as an experimental musician before he won a Grammy for Best Children's Recording for his CD, INFINITY PLUS ONE. And he hasn't stopped jump-starting imaginations with his Amazon Music release, WAKE UP THE DREAM. The new CD stresses the importance of taking chances and being an original thinker (a sentiment that harkens back to his breakout hit "Gotta Be Me"). The difference on WAKE UP THE DREAM is the fully fleshed-out breadth of Skidoo's vision. It's a masterful concept, although much of it may be lost on younger listeners.

Intermingled with the 10 songs are radio breaks from station WREM (get it) cohosted by the unconscious and subconscious minds. There are also interludes that are part classical, part jazz, and part Raymond Scott (Looney Tunes). After kicking off with the title track, Skidoo hip-hops into "Where Did the Magic Go," with a sampling from Del Shannon's "Runaway" and guest vocals from his daughter, Saki (aka MC Fireworks). "Dreaming Again" is a a harmonic, distaff version of "I Only Have Eyes for You." A pirate sings about his relationship with a mermaid on "You Caught My Eye," an inter-species take on "When A Man Loves a Woman." And you won't sit can't sit don't sit dance it with the mega-funked "Makeship Spaceship."

Breaking boundaries and playing mix and match with classic styles and genres is a hallmark of a 23 Skidoo CD. WAKE UP THE DREAM is no exception, as "Black and White Squares" incorporates a Herb Alpert trumpet and "Broken Dreams" serves as a modern day Bobby Darin sock hop favorite with a tinkling toy piano. And Skidoo channels Parliament-Funkadelic on the spiffy "Tomorrow's Yesterday." The disc ultimately reaches its "final lesson" on "Story/Tellers," reinforcing the perception that every child has the ability to write their own personal saga, no matter how fantastical.

We've been following Secret Agent 23 Skidoo since his earliest days on the kindie scene, hailing back nearly a decade. He has consistently pushed back against the impression that "kid hop" has to be limited to easily-digestible music and sophomoric wordplay. To Skidoo, a Grammy was a nice "attaboy" but it hasn't diminished his appetite for freedom of expression, for himself or his audience. WAKE UP THE DREAM is both Skidoo's testimony and a clarion call to kids of all ages. When I was in high school, there was a controversial musical that pitched "Don't dream it, be it." Through the magic of space and time, Skidoo has become the living embodiment of that sentiment.

WAKE UP THE DREAM is available exclusively on June 29 from Amazon Music.

Here is the first single, "Where Did the Magic Go":

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Quick Hits: Lucy Kalantari, Mista Cookie Jar & Father Goose, Hot Peas 'N Butter

Lucy Kalantari and the Jazz Cats are back with a new album next month. Pre-order the first song, "Sounds of Summer," on Amazon. As you might expect, it's got horns a'plenty as well as a bouncy bebop beat. And puts you right in the toe-tapping mod for the release of ALL THE SOUNDS on July 27.

It's a meeting of mic mastery when Mista Cookie Jar and Father Goose team up on "Free Bubbles." You can hear it for free at Bandcamp (or buy it while you're at it). There's a little scat singing in the meeting of Goose and Cookie:

It's like Peter Potter poo Shibe Dee Shibe Dee doo.
It's Father Goose with a lot of love for you.
Mista Cookie Jar is never too far
sharing the love all the way to the stars.
From shore to shore.
From coast to coast.
You know how the story goes!
From California to New York City.
Wow! Bubbles looks so pretty.

Hot Peas N Butter are back with their new CD, BACK TO THE LAND, on July 25. The band sets the tone with the lyric video to the song, "Rainbow In Your Eyes":

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Music and Imagination as Easy as 4-5-6 for Margot Bevington

Oh Ms. Margot. Such gossamer vocal overdubs. Such wistful sentiments. Such is her new CD, I AM 4, 5, 6, the followup to (wait for it) ONE AND TWO IS THREE. And as you might imagine, the songs are age-specific for children in those groups. Maryland performer Margot Bevington has taught music education for more than a decade. While her concepts are nothing new, that's not a knock. Kids at this age are just developing their palette and Ms. Margot is here to teach them to paint outside the lines.

I AM 4, 5, 6 is a song cycle for families. Starting with "From There to Here," Margot uses rhymes from children's literature to show how books vividly describe the real world and the realms of creativity. Parents who ever had a child "swear" there was a creature buzzing around the backyard will relate to "I Saw a Fairy." And logic-loving "serious" kids are the subject of "Sense To Me."

I am currently living through the phenomenon related in "Storytime," as the father of a seven-year-old realizing that he can read most of the words in his books. He still wants and desires reading with me at bedtime. He is capable of doing more at this stage but it's more of a bonding experience and less about the words on the page. One of the book series we got through was Junie B. Jones – so slowly that my first grader made it to second grade before the protagonist. Junie had a "Make Believe Zoo" and now Margot sings about the joys and pleasures of designing ones own personal home menagerie.

The most heartbreaking, personal track, "Swinging," depicts a child and mother in the playground – one seeking to swing up (i.e., get older) and the other seeking to enjoy the moment (i.e., stay young). My divorce hit me pretty hard, mentally and physically, and "Swinging" brought back a flood of memories about spending time with my younger son. We would go to the nearby playground and he would desperately want to swing on my lap. I had lost so much body weight through stress and anxiety that it was at times a painful struggle to fulfill his wish. But I willed it to happen, not wanting to deny either of us the chance to build that memory, short-term for him and long-term for me:

I wonder why I like to go swing with the trees
I see the babies and it jogs sweet memories
My mother's lap
Her arms to nap
And sway in
I'm bigger now
But she taught me how

With sunshiny soprano vocals (overdubbed with clear harmonies), Margot makes I AM 4, 5, 6 an easy primer for next-step advancement of discovery, self-actualization, and having fun with imagination. And now, listeners outside the Maryland area get to discover and have fun with Ms. Margot.

I AM 4, 5, 6 is available from Margot Bevington's website, Soundcloud, Amazon, and iTunes.

Here is the video for Margot's song, "Heart, Pencils, and Crayons":

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Ben's Playlist - Friday, June 22, 2018

I Love The Night – Gustafer Yellowgold
The Beautiful Dream – George Ezra
What's Done is Done – Jack White
All These Years – Camila Cabello
Who, What, When, Where, Why – The Bazillions
Lost And Loving It  – Kepi Ghoulie
Sunshine Sunny Sun Sunshine Day – Danny Weinkauf

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Ben's Playlist - Thursday, June 21, 2018

Over and Over and Over – Jack White
Keep On Reaching – Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds
Higher Higher  – Justin Timberlake
Saviour – George Ezra
Handle With Care – Like Father Like Son
What Kind Of Fruit – Dean Jones

Positive Pop is Kira Willey's Position

Yoga used to carry a pretentious preconception – a pencil-thin woman carrying a yoga mat would pass the train station and eyes would roll. A few decades and a sea change of cultural transformation later, there's no eye-rolling at the number of yoga outfits and yoga mats walking around any given neighborhood. Kira Willey teaches music, yoga movement, and mindfulness for children – mixing all the concepts on four prior CDs as well as her newest release, EVERY VOICE.

There's a ton of empowerment behind the dozen songs on EVERY VOICE, from the gossamer anthem title track, to "The Leader In Me" and "Community." Kira and company (including producers Zak Rizvi and Dave Padrutt) believe in putting the foot to the pedal as well as crossing the legs in a lotus position.

It's truly important for Kira (a mother of three) to promote kid power – not girl power, although that sentiment is the topic of the CD's first video, "Real Girl," featuring numerous authentic adolescents (see below). Kindness is an over-riding theme, from the closing "Kindness Mantra," to "Come On In," where "kindness always wins" and "Hello Hope" with the line "Fill the world up with kindness and love and joy." Children's music icon Laurie Berkner guests on "Dream It Up," helping harmonize on the sweet-tempered reveries:

If you're chilly paint the sun
If you're lonely paint someone
If you're sleepy paint a bed to cuddle up in
Close your eyes and dream it up
In your mind imagine it and see
What it can be

Kira's airy vocals are sometimes doubled and tripled to create a hypnotic wall of sound that accompanies the mostly acoustic arrangements. That doesn't mean EVERY VOICE isn't a dance party. With the possible exception of piano ballad "Hello Hope," it's inevitable that young impressionable minds will command little feet to do some cavorting and gamboling. And in a final Bharadvaja's Twist, that could be the most empowering act that Kira gives your kids.

EVERY VOICE is available on June 15 from Kira Willey's website, Amazon, Apple Music, CDBABY, and Soundcloud.

Here is the video for "Real Girl":

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Ben's Playlist - Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My Barn Door Is Open – Red Yarn
Little Bit of Time – Like Father Like Son
Meadow – Stone Temple Pilots
Saturday Sun – Vance Joy
Breeze Off the Pond – Justin Timberlake
Electric Jellyfish Boogaloo – The Oot 'n Oots

Monday, June 18, 2018

Quick Hits: Mista Cookie Jar, Jeanie Bratschie & Laurie Berkner

Mista Cookie Jar is back with new music. "Let's Get a Dog" starts with a shot of 1980s synth a la A Flock of Seagulls. It settles into the tale of how an outing to a pet store turns lands a kid a new best friend. The song debuted on the Saturday Morning Cereal Bowl and you can get the podcast here. You can also get it at Bandcamp.

Mister Cookie Jar promises more sunny songs for a summer day are coming soon. So stay tuned and I'll try to keep more up to date as they are released.

Chicago's Jeanie Bratschie has released two CDs for your listening pleasure – I LOVE MUSIC and COME TOGETHER. Jeanie has more than 15 years of performing as a children's artist to her credit. Her career as a recording artist began when her three-year-old began asking her to concoct songs from his ideas at bedtime. Before long, she was lining up a band, laying down tracks, and hitting the road.

There's a sprintly country feel to the songs on the discs, with a decidedly seasonal feel to I LOVE MUSIC, with "Lady Liberty," "Summer Is Sunshine," and "Hop On Pop." Jeanie doesn't sing down to kids, she engages and wants the whole family to sing along. There are a few teachable moments mixed in, with "Build A Better World" (construction standing in for humanistic values) and "M-O-M" for the most important woman in any child's early development. You can get Jeanie's CDs at her website and CDBABY.

I'm waaaay behind the curve on this last item, but the Laurie Berkner Band released a Fathers' Day song – "I Love You Daddy" and a video along with it. The video has nothing to do with the shelved Louis CK movie of the same title, so if you found this article via Google search, buzz off. Anyway, here's the video:

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Ben's Playlist - Monday, June 18, 2018

Smile For Me – David Tobocman
Paradise – George Ezra
Sun Is a Star – Like Father Like Son
The Good Parts – Andy Grammer
That's My Style – The Bazillions
Cloud Skateboard – Mo Phillips
Hypermisophoniac – Jack White

Friday, June 15, 2018

Get Yer Ya-Yas and Ha-Has Out for the Oot n' Oots

There's something in the water in Austin, Texas and British Columbia, Canada. And it's something good – nothing like what's poisoning people in Flint, Michigan. Much like Austin's Jarebear has rediscovered and reconnected with their inner 70s starchild, Canada's The Oot n' Oots is partying like it's 1969 on their second CD, ELECTRIC JELLYFISH BOOGALOO.

The throwback feel is only part of the appeal, as The Oot n'Oots are a family deal. Eleven-year-old singer Ruth Cipes joins her father (Ezra) and uncles Ari, Gabe, and Matthew. They're like Hansen with extra parts, if one of those parts was a "funny uncle." That's sometimes funny ha-ha but also sometimes funny strange, as on "I Like It Saucy."

Kids bands are generally about dancing, having fun, and teachable moments. I can honestly report that I learned perhaps not one thing from ELECTRIC JELLYFISH BOOGALOO and my life is just fine, thanks for asking."Tomato Jungle" is maybe about gardening but also hide and seek. "Where the Purple Geese Fly" slows down Santana's "Black Magic Woman" with a series of progressively ridiculously-colored birds.

Ari takes the helm for tunes like "Dust Pan," singing about the importance of being neat and clean around the house, and the hyperbolic "Yam Fries," overselling the pleasures and value of sweet potatoes:

You know they’re packed with betacarotene
Vitamin A to make you feel keen
They keep digestion regular and right
They put your tummy in the limelight

The Oot n' Oots may be Canadian, but their mission statement is pure sunny San Francisco 1969 – talkin' about "Look at Those Bees" (sung by Ezra) and "Fermented Foods." In place of free love, there's "Pure Love," closing the CD with Ezra voicing a simple truth about what really matters in life – "We’re all that’s real/We become each other/We become nothing/Pure love." If not for the presence of songs for younger audiences, such as "Little Sammy Davis" and "Animal Sounds," one could mistake ELECTRIC JELLYFISH BOOGALOO as a side project from Blues Traveler or the Spin Doctors... genial, quirky, reassuring, border-crossing but not boundary-crossing children's music.

ELECTRIC JELLYFISH BOOGALOO is available from The Oot n' Oots' website, Spotify, Apple Music, and Bandcamp.

Here is the video for "Dust Pan":

Monday, June 11, 2018

Gunnar Madsen Sets the Table After 10 Years

Skipping a decade can be detrimental to a musician (or group)'s career; R.E.M. may have broken up in 2011 and I've been waiting in vain to hear about Michael Stipe doing anything substantial musically. On the children's music front, Raffi took 14 years off but then released two CDs in 14 months. The latest to fill in the blanks is Gunnar Madsen, re-entering the fray with I AM YOUR FOOD, a collection of culinary-based chorales.

I'm blowing the significance of the recording gap way out of proportion – Gunnar has been busy with other musical pursuits, including work for the Los Angeles Theater Company, the Minnesota Opera, and National Public Radio. Along the way he recorded the 13 songs (and 3 bonus tracks available through a Bandcamp pre-order) that range from straightforward to curious to tributary ("Riders on the Storm" remade as "Egg Salad in the Sun").

A foodie residing in the little-known hamlet of Berkeley, California, Gunnar announces his intentions right out of the bread basket, rustling up an appetite in "10,000 Pancakes." If you've ever wondered what a cow might sing, "Divine Bovine" answers that question with a whistling shuffle. Three guest stars deliver numbers solidly within their pantheon – Bill Harley with the giggly, icky "Liver," Frances England on the fanciful, fictional "City of Sardines," and Justin Roberts gets the last word relating a holiday tale, "The Longest Night," about a big Thanksgiving family dinner.

Gunnar reaches Tower of Power territory with the brassy, snazzy "Food Too Fast" and channels Redbone and Randy Newman for the forlorn "Lunch Is in a Paper Bag," as a student dreams of an actual lunch box. "Shelf Life" uses food expiration to serve as a parable to living life to the fullest before you "go to waste." Perhaps the most fanciful track, however, is the ethereal "City of Sardines," with its saga of a rainfall of fish that saves a starving Japanese province.

Full disclosure: I am unfamiliar with Gunnar's earlier children's work. He took a break just as I was getting into the medium as a reviewer. For those waiting for him to return, the CD may play as a continuation of his preceding discography. I AM YOUR FOOD stands apart from most of this year's releases, on its own merits, as one of the most intriguing (and aurally edible) of 2018. Bon appetit!

I AM YOUR FOOD is available on June 15 from Gunnar Madsen's website, SoundcloudAmazon, Bandcamp, and iTunes.

Here is the video for Gunnar's song, "10,000 Pancakes":

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Ben's Playlist - Monday, June 11, 2018

To Raise a Barn – Red Yarn
Say Something – Justin Timberlake
Popsicle – Bob and Luc Schneider
Rock Island Line (Featuring Billy Bragg) – Dan Zanes & Friends
We're Going Home – Vance Joy
Have Some Fun Out There – David Tobocman

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Ben's Playlist - Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Only One – Brady Rymer & The Little Band That Could
Home – Spaghetti Eddie
Lost And Loving It  – Kepi Ghoulie
Lazy Boy – Franz Ferdinand
Feels Like Summer  – Weezer
Summer's Here – The Bazillions
Space Adventure – The Pop Ups
People Watching – Dean Jones

A Perennial Evolves With Highlights Hangout!

Who doesn't remember Highlights For Children? The magazine has been around for 70 years, so even I read issues (mostly in pediatrician offices, as I recall). It's evolved into a website as well, and starting this month, there's even a podcast, Highlights Hangout!, from the creators of NPR's Wow in the World.

The monthly Highlights Hangout! is co-hosted by Grammy award-winning children's recording artist Tim Kubart and Juanita Anderson (from Barrel of Monkeys). The podcast attempts to recreate the magazine (which they should really move away from, so it turns into its own standalone product) with the stories, characters, puzzles, and jokes that have entertained kids for decades.

The premiere episode “Hang Ten” debuted June 4 and introduced listeners to a new way to “play the Highlights way” – with Hidden Sound, a new twist on the classic Highlights’ Hidden Picture Game. Many Hidden Sounds pop up throughout the episode. Other Highlights favorites include  “Goofus and Gallant,” “Ask Arizona,” listener-submitted "HangMail" featuring jokes, tongue twisters, poems, and science questions answered by Mindy Thomas and Guy Raz from Wow in the World!

Download the first episode of Highlights Hangout! from Soundcloud and Apple podcasts.

Tim Seston Sings About How Kids' Lives Roll On Despite Challenges

Not all children are created equal. But they all have the same goals and expectations. Massachusetts teacher and musician Tim Seston explores those dimensions on his new CD, ON A ROLL. A father of three, Tim's son Luke was born with cerebral palsy. Regardless of disability, Luke is credited as tambourine player on the CD and features prominently in the artwork. The title track itself is a double entendré (of the least risqué kind) for a freewheeling child living with mental or physical impairment.

ON A ROLL is a CD with high expectations and a low age range (for listeners). The acoustic arrangements are augmented by violin, trombone, kazoo, clarinet, saxophone, tuba, mandolin, banjolin, dobro, trumpet, but seldom an electric instrument. Don't look for sophisticated synthesizers and keyboards – Tim may sing about "DNA," but it's as far from The Pop-Ups GIANTS OF SCIENCE as you can get when dealing with the same basic scientific premises.

Tim has more than a decade of experience as an educator and performing musician. He is well-versed in the demands made on parents and acutely aware of what happens when one of the children commands more attention due to special needs. As far as I'm concerned, Tim is preaching to the converted on that narrative. Conveying those points without talking down to his audience is the overriding concern of ON A ROLL. On songs such as "In Walked James," Tim deals with hyperactivity and exuberant imagination. I explained "Canker Sore"  to my kids, only to double back when I realized Tim was co-opting the term and applying it to a terrible, awful, no-good day. I found it a bit off-putting that "Rhymenocerous" is essentially a country song featuring hip-hop, beat-boxing animals – although Tim's website notes the song is really about how it feels to be excluded.

Once you've been introduced to the world of special needs, you never go back through the Looking Glass. It's a constant reminder that some children lack equivalent capabilities, but that all children should be capable of the same goals and expectations. ON A ROLL brings those fears and frustrations to the forefront in a folksy, genial manner. A tambourine may not be a guitar, but it's good enough to allow Luke Seston to be part of his father's world of music. And ON A ROLL provides an introduction for the rest of us.

ON A ROLL is available on June 8 from Tim Seston's website, AmazoniTunes, and CDBaby.

Here is a recent video of Tim performing "Wake the Imagination":

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Ben's Playlist - Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Fly Like A Bird – Dean Jones
Loving & Kind – Aaron Nigel Smith
Who, What, When, Where, Why – The Bazillions
Man of the Woods – Justin Timberlake
Shadow – The Pop Ups
14 Like Father Like Son – Like Father Like Son

Monday, June 04, 2018

Generations Collaborate, Celebrate Like Father Like Son

When it comes to nature versus nurture, children's music is intrinsically taught by one generation to the next. You don't see many two-year-olds in NYC crawling off on their own to catch the 6 train to concerts. Now stop thinking about that image. Focus. That's better.

Like Father Like Son takes the "family music" concept one step further on their debut CD, SUN IS A STAR. Lou Gallo literally followed in the footsteps of Laurie Berkner, succeeding her as a music teacher at the Rockefeller University’s Child and Family Center. He started recording children's music when his son Frank was two years old. In that way, Frank Gallo was born into the family business. Frank got to witness firsthand as his dad toured with Lou Gallo and the Very Hungry Band. When Frank turned from acting to music, he formed Rolie Polie Guacamole, a kid's band which shares a similar gastronomic affinity.

Lou and Frank tossed around a few joint recording possibilities before deciding on Like Father Like Son. SUN IS A STAR brings in Grammy-winning über-producer Dean Jones for a guiding hand. Long Island kindie legacy Brady Rymer steps in for two songs, including a rocking cover of "Handle With Care" from the Traveling Wilburys. Fun fact: That supergroup got its name from the studio nickname for flubs ("We'll bury it in the mix"). Trivia tip o' the hat to Dana Gould. Katie (Mullins) Ha-Ha-Ha provides some bountiful harmonies. And if the other Gallo-Rymer tune, "Little Bit of Time" doesn't open tear ducts, then you've got an Infinity Stone for a heart:

There is just a little bit of time we share
When you are small, and you are mine
You run and play
The days away
I watch and say
There's nothing I wouldn't do
To keep this moment here with you
Like that river that must flow I know

SUN IS A STAR yo-yos from songs for the very young ("Sharks and Dinosaurs" and "Shake Shake Shake") to the sentimental ("Like My Dad") to the offbeat ("I Got a Beard" and "Tennis Racket Song"). Lou goes to the folklore well for "Day-O" and Frank reels off a fountain of famous kid's TV and film figures on "Halloween Night." I found the latter tune sounded like a slowed-down version of "Stray Cat Strut," but it grew on me, especially when Matt (7) started singing along to the refrain of the chorus.

The CD ends with "Like Father Like Son," a poppy reaffirmation that Lou and Frank Gallo were genetically pre-programmed to record together. The back-and-forth lyrics exchange cadence and sentiment, thought and emotion, pride and pleasure, in a gentle, relatable manner. All things that you really should teach your children.

SUN IS A STAR is available on June 8 from Bandcamp, CDBaby, iTunes, Spotify, and Amazon.

Here is the video for the CD's title track, "Sun is a Star":