Archive for CD Review category
There’s something deeply ancient in Emily Portman’s voice. The kind of ancient that used to trip my imagination as a young boy reading stories of the English countryside. There’s an undercurrent in British folk music of the pagan. It’s just beneath the surface, mostly unseen, and it’s in many aspects of traditional British culture. A glimpse of some old Pictish fire under the most staid British gentleman. On Hatchling, Portman’s voice walks the lost hedgerows of the countryside, peering into the bushes along the way, and scribbling down the old names and carven faces in the roadside stones. Songs like “Hollin,” a traditional song culled from the vaguely titled songbook Songs of the North, Vol. 1, reflects, in Portman’s own words, her childhood love of exploring English countryside.
Portman’s voice is beguiling, drawing the listener deeper and deeper into the songs, but I should make mention too of her scholarship and her wide-ranging curiosity. The songs on the album come from old manuscripts as well as they do her own pen, and are inspired by topics as diverse as Greek myth, Norse gods, the English countryside, and circus folks. Perhaps my favorite part of this album are the songs that Portman writes herself that are inspired by older songs or manuscripts. She’s not afraid to take an old setting of a song and rework it into something new, or even to pull ideas from old songs. And when she does cover a traditional song, she’s pulling at it, and turning it into the light so as to show the hidden corners of the song. Old Mother Eve, sounding for all the world like a gentle children’s song, hides a subversive message that must date back centuries: “Old Mother Eve she liked apples, and Adam, he liked them too.” Coded feminist messages like this in old songs lends me great amounts of hope for humanity.
I should make special mention of Portman’s incredible song, “Hide,” from Portman’s previous album which takes a disturbing old ballad that encourages domestic abuse and reworks it into a truly powerful song about feminine strength. This kind of deep subversion reminds me that even the most antiquated old songs can still have life to them.
The instrumentation on this album is rich, from plucked harps to clawhammer banjo, to possibly a theremin or musical saw somewhere in the background? The instruments bubble under the music, like a wooded stream, and you’ll be forgiven for thinking the whole thing might have been recorded outdoors. Hatchling is an utterly enchanting album, rife with ancient folklore and half-forgotten old rituals, but still sounding utterly modern. Emily Portman should stand with Scottish artist Alasdair Roberts (who not coincidentally guests on this album) as one of the foremost traditional songwriters in the UK.
10/20/2013 | comments (0)
The albums are piling up here at Hearth Music HQ, so it's time to do a rundown of some of the great American roots music coming out recently. Check out some of our favorites and read more about each release. Have a listen yourself to be sure we're not blowin' smoke, and if you've got some money, kick it towards the artist to support them!
Jayme Stone. The Other Side of the Air.
Banjo master Jayme Stone is the very definition of an eclecticist (assuming that's actually a word). A far-traveling, passionately curious artist, his musical focus is like the light of a lighthouse: constantly roaming the landscape. In the liner notes for The Other Side of the Air, Stone talks about how this music is "a travelogue. A sonic chronicle of sounds I've discovered over the last two years." Most of Stone's music is a travelogue anyways, but what's interesting is that the new album feels like a real departure from the last album. Whereas the last album, Room of Wonders, was a romp through the wide world of folk dance music, The Other Side of the Air is a much more considered album, and ultimately it's an album of modern classical music, albeit for banjo.
Opening track "Radio Wassoulou" plays with familiar riffs from Malian music, passing the riff around like a joint. In "Soundiata," Stone's banjo ripples with the kind of beautiful ornaments found in West African stringed music, ornaments he no doubt learned while performing and touring with Malian griot and kora player Mansa Sissoko. The melodies on both these tracks are drawn from fieldwork trips to Mali that Stone undertook in 2007. "The Cinnamon Route" reminds me of today's work with banjos in jazz, but most of the material on this album seems more closely tied to classical compositions. The largest part of the album is given over to a four part Concerto for Banjo and Symphony from his longtime friend Andrew Downing.
This is a listener's album, no doubt. The tone and composition here is lush and beautiful and the production work by David Travers-Smith (he also did Ruth Moody's album) really stands out. Slip on this album with a nice glass of wine and plan to expand your brain a bit. That's my recommendation.
Richie Stearns | Rosie Newton. Tractor Beam.
I've been waiting for this one for a little bit now and it doesn't disappoint. Rosie Newtown is a truly monster old-time fiddler, and seems to be at the center of a real scene in Ithaca, New York. I first heard her fiddling as part of the New Young Fogies Appalachian compilation album. Not only is she a marvelously dextrous fiddler, pulling a huge variety of syncopated rhythms out of old-time bowing, but she's also a ferocious fiddler, tearing into a fiddle tune like a lioness tearing into a gazelle. On Tractor Beam, she's playing as a duo with songwriter/clawhammer banjo master Richie Stearns. Stearns is justifiably well known for his work with The Horse Flies, an alternative band with strong folk ties that was huge in the 90s. He's also toured extensively with Natalie MacMaster and Bela Fleck, scored an album for Pete Seeger, and worked with folks as diverse as David Byrne, Tuvan throat singers, and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Tractor Beam is a blend of original and traditional, from a fiddle tune Rosie wrote ("Take It or Leave It") to three new songs from Stearns ("Ribbons & Bows", "I Am With You Always", "Tractor Beam"), even a Townes Van Zandt cover, which Newton sings in her pure ballad style. Her voice is high and soft, and crackles with the fragility of an ice sheet. It's beautiful singing! Stearns brings an element of worldliness to the music on this album, with a voice tinged by long experience, and a kind of weariness to his singing that draws in the listener. The traditional material here is rendered impeccably, from the straight-ahead versions of "Say Darling Say" and "Willow Garden" (oh and listen to their harmonies on those songs.....), to the wonderful Clyde Davenport tune "Lost Goose" and the always classic "Trouble in Mind." Stand-out track "Shirt Tail Boogie" features the lost art of clawhammer fiddling (inspired by the great Fred Cockerham), and it's great to hear Old Crow Medicine Show alum Willie Watson ripping it up on the last two songs, Ruben's Train and Hangman's Reel.
All told, Tractor Beam brings a lot of lift and life to the old traditions.
Richie Stearns | Rosie Newton: I Am With You Always (Stearns)
The Abramson Singers. Late Riser.
2013. Copperspine Records.
Following up her stunning debut album, Vancouver, BC singer Leah Abramson (aka The Abramson Singers) has crafted another intricate puzzlebox of an album, weaving vocal harmonies into a dense shroud that hangs over each song. There's a larger ensemble sound with the new album, and guest artists include Rayna Gellert, Jesse Zubot, and Samantha Parton of the Be Good Tanyas. Used to be that Vancouver, BC was the lightning rod folk scene of the West Coast, bringing us groups like the Tanyas, Zubot and Dawson, The Paperboys, Outlaw Social (Pharis Romero's old band) and The Gruff. I haven't seen as many groups coming out of Vancouver these days as I used to, but from this album it's clear that there's still a great scene in the city. Look also to the album from Abramson's friend, Jenny Ritter, and you can learn more about Vancouver's roots scene.
On Late Riser, the songs whisper and twirl across a cracked wintery landscape. Vocal harmonies tense and resolve, and it's clear that Abramson loves to play with the timbre of the human voice. She arranges voices to hocket back and forth, and pairs a deeper voice with a high, almost falsetto voice. She's a sound poet first and a songwriting poet second. It's a great combination that lifts this album way above the herd of other singer-songwriters. Standout tracks include "Jack of Diamonds," which updates the old folk song trope of the gambling rounder, "Deja Vu," which is a gorgeous bit of songcraft,and "Liftoff Canon," which best shows off Abramson's vocal arrangements. Leah Abramson is one of the most eclectic and visioned artists in West Coast roots music and a name you should know.
Nell Robinson & Jim Nunally. House & Garden.
2013. Nell Robinson Music.
I've worked with Nell Robinson before, and she's one of the most positive artists I know in the music industry. That's because she comes to music late in the game, having started performing only in later life after growing up singing informally, so she brings an optimism and a fresh perspective to her work as a roots music singer and songwriter. There's something joyful about going along with someone as they discover and begin to truly develop their talents, and you can hear this magic in Nell's singing and in her songs. Teaming up here with ace bluegrass guitarist and singer Jim Nunally (of John Reischman's band, The Jaybirds), Nell delivers an album that feels like an effortless evening of singing in her home. And though her original home is rural Red Level, Alabama, her current home is near Berkeley and her current songs reflect the sunshine of a California garden. Besides the title of the album, House & Garden, Nell also includes an extra download card in each CD that can be planted in your own garden to grow some wildflowers. Of course, it's now our rainy season here in the Pacific Northwest, so I'm a bit late writing about this album and I seem to have missed the actual planting season. But 10 winters in Seattle have taught me the importance of thinking back on sunshine-y memories when the clouds roll in, and that's what this album excels at. As Nell and Jim sing in "Life in the Garden:"
"Life is full of many wand'ring pathways
Sometimes you know not where to go
Forget-me-nots in your garden
Will remind you of the places you have known"
Most of the songs on House & Garden are written by both Nell and Jim (with choice covers of Dolly Parton and George Jones), and they make a great songwriting team. "April Fool," "House," and "The Gardener" are both remarkably well-written, intriguing love songs, an all-too-rare thing today in a world drowning in lovesick songwriters.
Nell and Jim have a rare thing indeed, a lovely duet sound that pulls from both of their strengths. Turns out that when you tend your own garden, you can grow some lovely things.
Brian Vollmer. Old Time Music Party.
2013. Patuxent Records.
The title says it all here, really. Young East Coast fiddler/banjo player Brian Vollmer just picks the hell out of a bunch of great Southern old-time tunes. Honestly, was there really a point where we worried that this music wouldn't get passed on? Seems like my generation and younger have fallen hard for old-time music, and I think most of that comes from a desire for community and connection that goes far beyond the digital flickers of Facebook and Twitter. I know that's what got me into old-time; I just wanted to be part of these great all-night jams! A native of Washington DC/Baltimore, Vollmer's spent 10 years living in and around Asheville, North Carolina, picking up tunes from friends in the area before moving to Ithaca, where he's currently roommates with Rosie Newton (her album's covered just above!). I imagine the two of them probably shared "Lost Goose", a Clyde Davenport tune that appears on both albums. Vollmer actually learned it at Davenport's house, but Davenport got the tune from Dick Burnett of the truly amazing 78rpm-era duo Burnett and Rutherford. Damn it's a great tune. Kudos to Vollmer and Newton for their excellent taste! Other tune highlights on the album include French Carpenter's creepy-ass version of "Elzik's Farewell," a bombastic cover of the Roan Mountain Hilltopper's "Birchfield's Sally Ann," and the intriguing tune "The Green Door," which I'd never heard before. On the one-sheet for the album, they talk about how "this album is a tribute to anyone who has ever caroused until the break of dawn." Amen, brother. Amen.
Brian Vollmer: Lost Goose
Hannah Glavor and the Family Band. Halcyon EP.
I recently saw Hannah Glavor and the Family Band (spoiler alert: actual family band!) perform live at the beautiful Fremont Abbey in Seattle, opening up for Alela Diane, and her music completely impressed me. Her songs are beautiful and atmospheric, but what impressed me was that each note was so carefully considered. She has a powerful songcraft, in the most literal sense of the word. Each song sounds exactly hand-crafted, built in her Portland home, and tested extensively among her family before being brought forth to the crowd. There aren't too many artists these days who can do this, and I think it's really a blend of a natural performer and a master craftsman. Halcyon is Hannah's recent EP, released early this year, and it's just about perfect for a rainy Northwest night like the one I'm writing this in.
Hannah Glavor: Kingfisher
LISTEN to the whole album on Bandcamp!
Levi Fuller & The Library. Social Music EP.
Levi Fuller is a well known fella around Seattle's indie scene. A blogger for KEXP (where he chronicles the strange DJ comments pasted to old LPs), and a community organizer (his Ball of Wax compilations have involved hundreds of musicians and are far-reaching documents of many different NW sounds), Fuller is tied into many musical scenes in Seattle and beyond. His newest release with his band, The Library, is a short but sweet look at the music of Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music (plus a song from his buddies The Foghorns). Levi Fuller should know the music of Harry Smith's Anthology (I've written about this before HERE). After all, every year he and Greg Vandy (and me too, actually) organize a tribute to the anthology, drawing from an eclectic array of NW artists. What's surprising here is how sensitive he is to the music. He covers the songs here– "John The Revelator," "Dry Bones," "Since I Laid My Burden Down"– in such a way that he manages to tap into the wild heart of each one. His band is electric, and the music drives like a hammer, but this isn't some indie hipster covering old folk music. Levi gets what made these songs special in the first place, and the joy here is hearing his understanding come forth through a different musical palette. Another surprise? His great cover of local band The Foghorns' (no relation to Foghorn Stringband) song "80 Proof," a bleak song about alcoholism that's near perfectly written.
09/26/2013 | comments (0)
Various Artists. Classic Celtic Music from Smithsonian Folkways.
2013. Smithsonian Folkways.
I've got to give big kudos to elder record label Smithsonian Folkways for putting out this eclectic and somewhat daring release of Celtic music from their huge archives. They've gotten some flack from other people about whether or not every track on this release is truly Celtic (the British folk and French-Canadian folk sections seem to piss some people off), but folks, you gotta remember that Celtic's an invented term. It works fine for what it is, but there's really no point in trying to cut people or traditions out of the pie.
What's interesting about this album is not only the performers or the performances, but also the field agents and the recording sessions that got the music down on acetate. Folkways Records in the 50s and 60s was an adventurous venue, with leader Moe Asch sucking in all kinds of cutting-edge folklorists and ethnomusicologists to record artists during their trips. So we hear Northumberland fiddler Bob Hobkirk recorded in Scotland by the great blues scholar Samuel Charters, who was vacationing with his wife. Charters also recorded another Irish legend: uilleann piper Willie Clancy, here performing a beautiful air "Trip O'er the Mountain" and really showing off his stature on the pipes. We hear the folk singer Jean Ritchie recording Sarah Makem, the mother of the great Tommy Makem, singing "As I Roved Out" in her home in Ireland's County Armagh. Ritchie was in Ireland and Scotland in 1950 to trace the roots of Appalachian music. Or we have the great old-time/bluegrass organizer Ralph Rinzler–the man who "discovered" Doc Watson–recording the legendary Irish sean-nos singer Joe Heaney in a London pub in 1958. Rinzler was one of the first people to record the London Irish session scene, and Heaney's singing here of "The Rocks of Bawn" is pure classic. Plenty of other classic Celtic artists appear here, like Shirley Collins, Ewan MacColl, Scottish singers Isla Cameron and Lucy Stewart, and Irish fiddler Denis Murphy.
I, of course, love this album for including Jean Carignan, in my opinion the greatest fiddler of the 20th century. A taxi cab driver in Montréal, Carignan is a somewhat controversial figure today in Québec and among Québécois artists, where his music is sometimes seen as old-fashioned, or overly virtuosic. But that snobbery ignores his amazingly charismatic playing and his huge contribution to the music. As a traditional Québécois fiddler he was without peer, but what makes Carignan interesting is his uncanny ability to learn other traditions purely from listening to 78rpm records. He listened extensively to Irish fiddle great Michael Coleman and Scottish fiddle great J. Scott Skinner, and could play their music effortlessly, though both were among the most technically brilliant fiddlers of their age. Folkways' could have made 4 albums of cool obscure artists from Ireland and Scotland, but props to them for including an artist like Jean Carignan who truly shows the polymath nature of today's Celtic music world.
Pete Seeger Interviews Jean Carignan
Classic Celtic Music is likely not intended for casual listening. But with the extensive liner notes, and the huge back catalogue of classic LPs (all of which are now available digitally) which each track references, this is the perfect stepping off point for a much larger exploration of what exactly Celtic music really means.
Classic Celtic Music, Louis Killen: With My Pit Boots On
Classic Celtic Music, Jean Carignan: Bonnie Kate/Jenny's Chickens
09/06/2013 | comments (1)
Shane McAleer. Long Time No See.
I've missed Shane McAleer! I knew him mostly as the impossibly fiery fiddler for Dervish back in the day. Always an Irish super-group, the core players of Dervish in the early days lit up every stage they were on purely through the sheer power of their musicianship and the speed and dexterity of their playing. And Shane McAleer was a real star then. I used to stay up at night trying desperately to learn tunes from his playing, only to find that no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't get the same life in the tune that he did. I had the notes, I had the ornaments, but I just couldn't make it sound the way he played. There was a core of life in his tunes that I couldn't copy. Of course, part of the issue is that the early Dervish albums were hard to learn off since they were all tuned up a half step, a common trick in Irish trad recordings from the 80s and 90s that helped the music seem just a little more frenetic. But really McAleer's playing just couldn't be easily imitated. He was one of a kind. He left Dervish after their punkest album, At the End of the Day, and I didn't hear from him after that. I assumed he left because of their heavy touring schedule, but turns out now that he left because of a drinking problem (a fact he's not shy to admit since he's now sober). Dervish got new fiddlers, like the excellent and eclectic Tom Morrow, and kept going strong, but I always missed McAleer and wondered what he was up to.
So now it's wonderful to hear his new album and to know he's back on the scene! With Long Time No See, McAleer delivers the kind of album that seems to have fallen out of style: nothing but tunes tunes tunes. It's great fun and his playing is as deft and light as I remember. He's lost some of his original fire, some of the burning flames of a wild youth that fueled him in Dervish, but he's exchanged that for a sure hand and a strong maturity that brings his playing to a new depth. His playing on the slow air, "Dunluce Castle," which he wrote, is deeply beautiful and unhurried in the kind of way that a well thought out and eloquent speech would be. On the creatively titled barndance "If there weren't any women in the world," he spins through the lilting melody with a careful ear to the subtle rhythms. The whole album is much slower than I remember his fiddling from Dervish, but that's kind of nice. I've got stacks of albums of fast fiddlers and though it's a bit of a rush to listen to that, there's more to McAleer's playing than just speedy fingering, and he shows it here. McAleer hails from Belfast but is originally from Omagh in County Tyrone. The album was produced by fellow Omaghite (is that the word?) Eamon McElhom of Solas, who also joins on guitar/keyboard/cello (!) throughout.
This is a thoughtful album in the best way, made by an artist who you can feel is just happy to be back playing music. Good on you Shane, it's great to have you back! Many happy returns on your new album and I hope we'll get to learn tunes off you for many more years.
Shane McAleer: Dunluce Castle/Paddy Fahy's
09/04/2013 | comments (0)
With her new album, 'Ukulele Dance, young Hawaiian ukulele prodigy Taimane takes her instrument far beyond the Hawaiian shores on which she grew up. As she says, "I don't look at the ukulele as a Hawaiian instrument. I look at it as an instrument just like the guitar or the piano, and I put it in my hands and then I just play music that I enjoy." Simple words, but with over a century in the American mainstream, the ukulele has indeed moved far beyond its origins first as a Portuguese sailor's instrument, and then as the highly animated "dancing flea" (that's what the word means!) in the hands of Hawaiian artists. On her album, Taimane goes out of her way to show the versatility of an instrument that's often seen as simplistic or limited. "When I first tell people that I play the ukulele," she says, "usually their reaction is, 'Oh, that's cute! That's nice!' But what I'm trying to show people is that the ukulele's not just a Hawaiian instrument; you can play any type of genre. And that's why I pick all of these really eclectic, different genres of music."
On her new album, Taimane covers music like "Stairway to Heaven," "Phantom of the Opera," even the James Bond theme, and if that sounds a little strange, it's all tied together by her sure hand on the ukulele and her strong sense of composition. "Stairway to Heaven," for example, which has been covered by SO many artists over the years, here sounds entirely new and refreshing in Taimane's hands. The pure sounds of the ukulele ring out and she draws new directions with the melody, bringing a very old and tired song into an exciting new place. She shows some of this artistic taste in her original compositions as well, like "Moon" (part of a suite of compositions inspired by the solar system), the irresistibly fun "Ragdoll Riches," and the atmospheric "Neptune's Storm."
Awesome video for Neptune's Storm
Just 23 years old, it's remarkable the kind of skill that Taimane shows on her album. Of course, it helps that she's been playing since she was 5 and was brought into Don Ho's ohana (family) at 13 after a member of his band discovered her busking on the streets of Honolulu. Since her discovery, she's been incredibly busy, playing for celebrities like John Travolta and George Clooney, and performing around the world. With so many high level performances and polished recordings under her belt already, it's great to know that she's developed her art beyond the "gimmick" level of a solo ukulele star covering pop songs. With Ukulele Dance, Taimane shows that there's a real depth to her music, and though her instrument may not always command the respect it deserves, she's clearly on a path to change this through her music.
Learn More About Taimane via this Hawaiian Airlines Interview:
'Ukulele Dream is available now through Mountain Apple Company.
Photos by Shaun Edward.
09/02/2013 | comments (0)
Making or writing music for kids is a notoriously tricky thing, unless you're a kid yourself. You can either make music that's too simplistic for kids, who often have complex tastes and bizarre and disturbing senses of humor, or you can make music that's too complicated, losing some of the fun, singalong aspects of the best kids music. There's a delicate balance to be struck, and especially when working with American folk music as your base, it can be difficult to know what really works for kids. So here are four albums that get it right:
Heidi Swedberg & The Sukey Jump Band. My Cup of Tea.
2013. Sukey Jump Music.
OK, first things first: I always thought that the callous disposal of George's fiancée Susan on Seinfeld was the moment when you realized that he was a total sociopath. It's also the moment when this wonderful TV series lost its sense of fun. So if you're reading this, George Costanza, I think you suck. Happily, Susan has a life outside of Seinfeld, or rather Heidi Swedberg, the actress who played Susan, has a life. She's just released an album of children's songs as Heidi Swedberg & The Sukey Jump Band, and it's one of the catchiest, most infectiously joyful albums that I've heard in a while.
There's a kind of fun, acting vibe to the album, maybe something I'm picking up from the cover shots of Heidi in various costumes (including a killer Frida Kahlo costume), but also from the fact that musically she's trying on a lot of different personas here. What's great is that they each work. She's a literate librarian, writing a beautiful tune to the old poem " The Owl and the Pussycat." She's a cabaret trickster, crooning the classic "Istanbul." She's an Elizabeth Mitchell-like folkster with the traditional songs "Little Birdie" and "Hobo's Lullaby." She's a globetrotter with Haitian trad song "Wi Wa" and her Spanish language songs like the very catchy "Al Tambor." And she's even a budding funkster with "Boogie Man". Throughout, Swedberg's main instrument is her ukulele, played with some serious skill and discerning taste. Turns out she first started playing ukulele as a kid growing up in Kailua, HI, so don't think for a second this is a hipster ukulele record. It's the real deal, and in fact Swedberg teaches online uke lessons, so uke it up if you want to learn how!
I love this interview with Swedberg from The Huffington Post: "Folk songs don't tend to be about things. A lot of people who write songs for kids tend to write songs about brushing your teeth and putting on your pajamas. It's not my style. Sometimes there's also a cute factor, which I don't swallow well. When you look at folk songs or even folk songs for children, they don't tend to be about anything... They're songs about songs. They're not just on the nose in meaning. Look at My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean, which is a song about death and longing. That's a song about grief, but no one's talking about processing and dealing with grief. You just get on with it. That's why those songs are so powerful. Once you learn that song, it stays with you." If there's any justice, Heidi Swedberg will be the next breakout kids music artist. Just remember you heard it here first.
THIS ALBUM DROPS SEPTEMBER 10, 2013 SO KEEP AN EYE OUT!
Kids Review: My four year old daughter says she liked "The rock 'n roll thing she does. Da da da da da, yeah!" Not sure what that means exactly. My seven year old daughter didn't have a direct review–other than saying she liked the song "Cup of Tea" a lot–but she did draw this killer kitty cat while listening to "The Owl and the Pussy Cat:"
Alice DiMicele. If I Were An Otter: Songs for Kids of All Ages.
2013. Alice Otter Music.
This album's a pure delight, and I can attest that the title of "Songs for Kids of All Ages" is absolutely true. I've heard Alice DiMicele's politically charged songwriting for a while, since she's originally from my hometown of Ashland, Oregon, but this album came out of left field for me. It doesn't have any of the hallmarks of singer-songwriter territory, but instead it's a fun-loving mix of original and traditional songs, sung by a woman who's obviously having a great time. The band is top-notch and each track is completely varied. It's like a little treasure box, opening up new sides to the artist at each turn. Of course it's hard to go wrong with songs like "This Little Light of Mine;" it's pretty much impossible not to feel great when singing that song. But the other songs on the album attest to an artist who's led so many singalongs that she's developed a true gift for infusing a song with fun, loving energy. "City Mouse/Country Mouse," an original song from DiMicele that features a duet with Vince Herman (Leftover Salmon) is a great kids song and a sign that DiMicele has a real, and perhaps previously unreleased, talent for writing kids music. There's a strong environmental bent to the album, but it's delivered with a lot of heart. "Celebrate the Rain" is like an old gospel round, but filled with uplifting lyrics about the natural world.
Though the songs on If I Were An Otter are certainly kid-friendly, as you listen to the album you start to get the feeling that this ultimately became a kind of excuse for DiMicele to just cut loose and enjoy herself with very talented musical friends. And that's a wonderful thing.
Kids Review: I'm happy to say that my 7 year old daughter and I were singing along instantly to the opening song, "If I Were An Otter." It's a fun little song with a lot of child-like joy at its heart, so my daughter loved it. My four year old summarily declared it "The Best Song I've Ever Heard!" So there's that too. My 7 year old was happy to have "Three Little Birds" too, the Bob Marley song, as it's already one of her favorites.
PS: If you buy this album on Bandcamp, you get a coloring/song book of the album with sheet music so you can sing/play along at home. How cool is that?
The Banjo, by Zach Hudson.
2012. Five String Press.
I held off reviewing this childrens book and album mainly because Zach's an old family friend and the accompanying album of music features not only artists we've worked for as publicists, but also my wife, Dejah, singing "Simple Gifts." But this album has been in our car for the past year, and it's become my daughters' favorite album. My littlest one has a huge love for Pharis & Jason Romero's track "Charming Betsy" and demands this track constantly, singing along happily to the slightly depressing lyrics from the back seat. So I figure this has passed the objectivity test in some way.
Zach Hudson works as an English teacher in Troutdale (a suburb of Portland, OR), and plays the banjo and fiddle in his spare time. The Banjo is his first published children's book, and it's a well built and powerfully simple ode to the humblest of instruments. The plot: Young Peter wants to join the orchestra, but his parents won't get him an instrument. He receives a banjo from a yard sale, but then the orchestra teachers refuse to let him play since it's not a symphonic instrument. But regardless of the adults' lack of belief in his ability, he teaches himself to play and soon discovers an unlikely ally at school. It's an excellent book, firstly for its ability to convey the quiet desperation of childhood and the overwhelming feeling all kids have that no adult can understand what they truly want. That's an emotion too often left out of kids books these days (though the great kids book authors of the 70s knew this emotion very very well). Secondly, the book is the first I've read that can convey the process of actually learning an instrument. There's something magical about learning an instrument, and the sense of accomplishment from learning even the simplest melody certainly fueled my own childhood interest in music. And thirdly, I love that this book is a collaboration between Zach, who wrote the story, and his own father, Jere Hudson, a former high school art teacher who provides the black and white drawings.
Zach talked to some of his favorite old-time banjo players and put together a compilation album of banjo music that comes with the book. It's a wonderful idea and provides for a beautiful and entertaining album. My daughters love this accompanying album, which features music from Pharis & Jason Romero, Rising Appalachia, Nadine & Sammy from Foghorn Stringband, Squirrel Butter, and Professor Banjo. Oh yeah, and my wife, but I think I'm a bit biased about that track in particular. :)
Bottom Line: This book/album combo makes a great gift to friends or it can provide lovely music and discussions for your own family. Or heck, maybe it'll inspire your kid to pick up the banjo and become the next Mumford Son!
Putumayo Kids Presents American Playground.
2013. Putumayo Records.
Eclectic global record label Putumayo has the kids music market on lock. If you haven't checked out their "Dreamland" series of albums, do so NOW. That series is full of seriously beautiful music perfectly blended to relax and calm the mind. Putumayo also has the "Playground" series of global kids music which is intended for a slightly rowdier crowd of youngsters. American Playground is their foray into Americana in this series, but it's really a roundup of the top kids music artists who work in American folk music. Dan Zanes, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Johnny Bregar. It's a pretty "safe" compilation, meaning that most of the songs are very familiar to anyone with a love for American folk. Where the compilation excels is in the heartfelt and fun versions of each of these songs. "You Are My Sunshine" comes alive as a rootin-tootin Western song via Buck Howdy, "This Little Light of Mine" is given a straight-ahead folk treatment from Victor Johnson that lets the lyrics really shine, and even "She'll be Coming Round the Mountain" is hard to resists in the hands of Johnny Bregar. The only flops here, in my opinion, are Diane Taraz's "Oh Susannah," a song so old and tired it should never ever be covered again, and Phil Rosenthal's "This Land is Your Land" which leaches out all of the childlike anarchy of the original that made it so great. But Guy Davis' "We All Need More Kindness in This World" more than makes up for these issues. And Dan Zanes' "Saro Jane" is a real highlight. Overall this collection is fun for the adults and kids alike and though the songs aren't anything new, they're still a helluva lot of fun to sing along to.
Kids Review: My seven year old daughter gave this two thumbs up, though she didn't agree with Guy Davis that "we all need more hugs in this world." When asked why, she replied that she didn't think chickens should be hugging. She was unavailable for further comment on this issue. My four year old daughter cared FAR more about the album art than the music. She went through each character on the cover asking us who we wanted to be. When I replied I wanted to be the bear, she loudly exclaimed, "But Dad, there are lots of bears here. WHICH bear do you want to be?" I eventually settled on the armadillo.
YOU CAN LISTEN TO THE ALBUM ON BANDCAMP: