High Concept, High Reward
By Bill Childs, HF Contributing Writer
CDs aimed at kids are rarely what the industry calls “high concept” – that is, with a Big Theme running throughout, or a clever idea at their core. Sure, you occasionally get the food-themed record or the alphabet/number collections, but rarely anything more than that. This month, a few releases that break the mold and, mostly, pay off with their gamble.
Putumayo Kids – Sesame Street Playground: There’s no better concept yet this year: Sesame Street songs from around the world, plus a DVD with a handful of videos from international editions of the essential kids’ series. And Putumayo pulls it off, from the Dutch opening to a Chinese “Rubber Duckie” to a French “La Chanson de l’Amité” that sounds exactly as French as you’d hope, to the driving Israeli “En Den Dino.” It’s not perfect – at least for me, I can think of a lot of U.S. songs I’d put ahead of “Elmo’s Song” to represent the domestic version of the show – but the highs easily outweigh the lows. (And I probably just resent Elmo, coming as he did after I was done with the show. Like Scrappy on Scooby Doo; can’t stand him either.) The DVD just adds to the fun, giving kids a look at what Sesame Street is like overseas. www.putumayo.com
Bill Harley – Yes to Running: Harley is a very funny musician and storyteller, well known for both his kids’ stuff and his commentaries on NPR’s All Things Considered. Frankly, his studio CDs have always left me a little underwhelmed, but this two-CD set, recorded live at a high-energy show in Montana, helps me understand his success. Harley’s at his core a storyteller (even in his songs), and clearly thrives on audience participation. You don’t need to get past the first track (“I Like to Sing”) to get a sense of the sheer fun that must be seeing him live. The CDs also include several lengthy musical stories, including the very funny “Mom and the Radio.” He’s utterly engaging and has a great sense of comic timing, and has a bluntness and self-deprecating wit that kids no doubt will love (noting that “only an idiot” would sled down a huge hill, and that they did, “because we were idiots”). Add in his willingness to good-naturedly mock parents along with himself and it’s a lot of fun. It’s not as big a concept as, say, Sesame Street Playground, but it’s definitely a CD that’s much more about the whole than any of its parts. www.billharley.com
Will Thomas – Spanglish Wrangler: Now Miami-based Will Thomas performs relaxed alt-country with a blues touch, more or less, with lyrics in, as the title suggests, some Spanish, some English – Spanglish – in every song. The arrangements and production have a bit of a G. Love/Jack Johnson/Ben Taylor vibe, with a couple of songs based on classics (“Cucaracha” based on Earth Wind & Fire’s “September,” and “They Call It Spanish Monday” on T. Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday”). If you’re looking for some Spanish language in your kids’ environment, this is a great, accessible, non-cheesy record, with some gentle humor (“Broccoli,” for instance, involves a kid’s bargaining for more – yes, more! – broccoli). While there are a handful of songs out there with both English and Spanish (the Jimmies’ terrific “Spanimals” comes to mind), this is the first kids’ record I can remember that reflects the reality in many households of both languages intermingling. It sounds effortless but hits the spot. www.willthomas.com
Bill teaches law school by day in Springfield. With his kids, he produces a radio show for kids, Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child, which airs on Saturday mornings on 93.9 The River (7-9 AM, 101.5 in Brattleboro) and 103.3 Valley Free Radio (8-10 AM). He’s also a columnist for regional parenting magazines, covers music for Parenting magazine, and is a bi-monthly contributing writer to Hilltown Families. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org