Monday, December 16, 2019

State of the Reviewer: The Famous Final Scene

Thirteen years ago, my son Ben started to listen to music while he ate breakfast. I would throw on a Sesame Street CD or one of the homemade "birthday CDs" comprised of pop tunes and the Wiggles. I also printed out the playlist from iTunes – and Ben would mull it over, looking at the cover art and telling me which songs "lacked" representative illustration. I never imagined that years later, those early selections would lead to more than 750 event previews, live event and music reviews, and interviews, as well as commentary about children's music and more.

I'll get to the historical perspective, but most importantly for artists who have contacted me in the past two months – I am done for 2019. If your video, song, or album had a 2019 release date, I apologize but the shop is closed for the year. I will be forward-thinking from this point on. More to the point, I am also phasing down my children's music portfolio. It's been coming for the past year, as Ben has long aged-out of the demographic. But his younger brother prefers modern pop (think Imagine Dragons) and sighs heavily if I suggest bringing new, unplayed kids CDs on our road trips. You see the number of posts dropping, year over year. That's not by accident.

In the oft-told tale, family acquaintance Uncle Rock (Robert Burke Warren) began recording children's music and we bought his first CD. When "Rock and Roll Babysitter" was played on Bill Childs and Spare the Rock (STR) radio show and podcast, that inverted the paradigm. Suddenly we were immersed in the "kindie" (kids independent) explosion. Sure, Ben was seeing Dan Zanes, Tom Chapin, Justin Roberts, and even Ralph's World at Symphony Space. Now there were a myriad host of others and he began to develop his own tastes, scanning the STR song list and selecting tracks for me to purchase and save.

The inaugural Stink kid's music showcase was in 2008 but we missed it due to a scheduling conflict. In 2009, we made a point of attending the event, held at Jalopy in Red Hook, Brooklyn. First was a Ralph's World concert at Symphony Space in the morning. We walked in, ran into Ralph Covert, and said "We'll see you later in Brooklyn." Five hours later, I was next in line to use the bathroom at Jalopy. As Ralph exited the facilities, I said "As I was saying..."

Stink marks the first time that I broke out the camcorder (later iPhone) and began recording artist performances. This was our first experience with Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could but certainly not the last. Nine years later, we'd see Brady at a show at the Quogue Library and Ben would feel comfortable enough to walk to the mic and sing along.

Ben sings with Brady Rymer, July 2018
Leading into Stink, I started to publish Ben's playlists on this blog. I set up the Blogger page to "save" articles written for a Queens weekly newspaper that stopped publishing. Conveniently, I could now dedicate the blog to children's music. The first playlist (May 1, 2009) was an eclectic mix of kids (The Jimmies) and pop (Whitney Houston, Jack Johnson, and Weezer). I hadn't learned how to coordinate my social media and I don't think I was even on Facebook yet.  About six months in, I wrote a "mission statement," called "Music for Kids, Not Children's Music," to more fully explain my methodology.

Artists started to contact me directly via email but I wasn't doing regular reviews until after Kindiefest 2010 (the renamed Stink). Once or twice a month, I ran a review. Kindiefest shows, and later Kidstock in Port Washington – became big occasions to shoot performances videos for my YouTube channel.  Things exploded in 2012 as multiple PR people began deluging me with CDs and offers to attend New York-based events. Ben now had a toddler younger brother and these concerts were often inappropriate for him, so we would pass. Instead, I concentrated on reviews. By September of that year, I was up to weekly articles.

Fast-forward in 2018 when I added GeekDad to the chore list – publishing an astounding 72 pieces in 52 weeks. And turned down stuff along the way, but not enough. Finally I hit full capacity. The part-time hobby became burdensome. I found myself previewing stuff and realizing my kids would not be interested. But I wasn't interested either. So why was I bothering? Because I had given my word. And thus my time was no longer my own.

Fids and Kamily is sunsetting because of real-world challenges. I fully understand that there are currently more opportunities and pipelines for children's music such as Spotify and Soundcloud, yet there are fewer reputable outposts to review those offerings. Early into my GeekDad tenure, I explained to site managers that my reviews are concise because parents have limited time. Therefore, I don't pad my articles with CD track listings.

I also don't want to feel resentful towards the artists I'm reviewing. On more than one weekend, I've sat down with a stack of upcoming releases to "knock out" 1-2 articles. Late this year, I had a bottleneck of reviews for CDs being released the same day, with holiday videos and songs pushing back Dog On Fleas from October 18 into early December. That opened my eyes to saying "no" more, for my own sanity.

I'm not going to stop writing. I'm not pressing Ben to make playlists every morning and he routinely skips them on his own. I'm writing more adult-centric material (you can follow me at Medium). There will be some reviews and one-off pieces on this site as well, although I don't know if I'll hit 3,000 articles (I'm just under 2,900). Have a great holiday season. Enjoy your family. Eat in moderation. Breathe. See you in 2020. Stay healthy.

Holiday Hits: Faith Levy Chanukkah Tune & Charlie Brown Xmas

Once upon a time, there was "The Dreidel Song." Then Adam Sandler added "The Hannukah Song."  But what else was there for kids? Mama Doni added "Hanukkah Fever" and the LeeVees did a whole CD of clever tunes. But you had to KNOW they existed. Now Alison Faith Levy has added to the limited collection, thanks to a desire to learn the ukulele.

Alison yearned to play the ukulele like her friend and bandmate Karla Kane. So she bought one and taught herself to play it. Now they have released the holiday duet, “All I Want For Chanukkah Is a Ukulele.” Talk about synergy! You can find the tune on Soundcloud, Apple Music, and Spotify, and enjoy it with the whole mishpucha.

Two of the most iconic holiday songs fall under the jazz category, performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio – “Christmas Time is Here” and “Linus and Lucy,” which is often misidentified as “The Peanuts Theme.” The songs are part of the classic  “A Charlie Brown Christmas” which is the second–best-selling jazz title in history. This year, you can even purchase a special green vinyl edition.

The soundtrack features music from the 1965 animated television special and includes “O Tannenbaum,” the two aforementioned tracks, and a bunch more. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was the first television special based on the Peanuts comic strip, created by Charles M. Schulz. Controversial at the time due to overtly religious content, it is now considered mild (although if Schulz had Linus read from the quran, I'm sure it would be banned from American airwaves to this day).

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS is available from Amazon and Apple Music.

Here is the video for the song, "Christmas Time Is Here":

Monday, December 09, 2019

Holiday Hits: Joyful Videos from Hunk-Ta Bunk-Ta and Duke Otherwise

There's no greater opportunity for wordplay than when a children's musician juxtaposes a word that works as an emotion and a name. Duke Otherwise's new video for “Joy’s a Grump” takes full advantage of kids with mismatched names and their teacher, Miss Nomer. Duke's niece once met a girl named Joy at a party and gave him the inspiration for the song, telling him “her name shouldn’t be Joy ‘cause she is grumpy." The CD is available for sale at Duke's website.

Holiday joy is another kind of making merry. And Denver's Katherine Dines and Hunk-Ta Bunk-Ta celebrate with a video for their new song, "Joy":

Monday, December 02, 2019

An Upbeat Return for Dog on Fleas

The true Dean of children's music is Dean Jones – ├╝ber-producer of many acts like Gustafer Yellowgold, Frances England, and the Lucky Band – as well as an individual performer and part of the three-man band, Dog On Fleas. The latter is returning after a five-year hiatus with their newest release, I'M AN OPTIMIST. The CD certainly wins a "truth in advertising" award, as it's one of the most unrelentingly sunny and upbeat things I've heard in quite some time.

"Wanna Be" is a call-and-response song about growing up and choosing to be original, different, and fulfilled. "In a world of talking, I wanna be a listener," Dean sings. "In a world of rangers, I wanna be a black bear." The nature ode "Sting Along" will spark joy among the young animal lovers in your midst, recounting how every creature has its own family, genus, and species within its taxonomy.

Dog On Fleas must have wanted to land a funky dance groove and they succeeded with "Village d'├âtoile," which is french for "Star Village." That's also the entire extent of the lyrics for the song. "Doppelganger," based on a true story of misidentification, starts with its Alan Parsons Project vibe and changes personality a moment later. The anti-educational "It's a Miracle" takes the modern world at face value…

It's a miracle...that an airplane can fly up in the sky.
It's a miracle...that an apple tree comes from an apple seed.
It's a miracle...when you see ants work together, and how about the bees.
It's a miracle...that our heads don't pop off every time we sneeze.

Dog On Fleas is more than Dean Jones, surely. John Hughes (not the filmmaker) provides bass, guitar, and vocals. Chris Cullo sings and plays drums and percussion instruments. The trio spent the past year ensconced in upstate New York, fiendishly plotting their return. Hard to believe it's been half-a-decade, but Dean had other fish on his plate. And knowing Dean, that could have been a song right there.

It's almost retro for Dog On Fleas to come back as the 2010s are ending. The Fleas (or Dogmen or whatever you call them) sound as if they've always been a part of the children's music scene and never left. I'M AN OPTIMIST is best characterized on "A Little Hiccup," where the narrator could have become dejected by mistakes or adversity, but explains that life still went on and yours should, too. Time doesn't stand still and Dog On Fleas is optimistic that there will be more days to dance and celebrate in the future.

I'M AN OPTIMIST is available from Dog On Fleas' website, CDBABY, and Apple Music.

Here is their recent video for the song, "Doppelganger":