CD Review: Ben Rudnick and Friends, “A Frog Named Sam”

Ben Rudnick and Friends – A Frog Named Sam (2009, Bartlett Avenue)
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As kids’ entertainment characters go, “a frog named Sam” isn’t the most original concept in the world — and neither is the story at the heart of this album’s title track, about the titular amphibian and his journey from backwater pond to the big city and back again. Heck, even A Frog Named Sam‘s artwork is fairly amateurish, so a person could be forgiven for having low expectations for the album…expectations that will be exceeded within the first few moments of listening to the deadpan vocals, tribal jam band beat, and — of course — ribbiting of the leadoff track. What Ben Rudnick and Friends lack in conceptual originality, they more than make up for with a musical approach that can best be described as “Beausoleil for tots” — plenty of upbeat, danceable rhythms, tasty acoustic guitar fills, mandolin, harmonica, and accordion, all draped around an assortment of the usual kids’ subjects: talking animals, trains, family love, and friendship.

So no, A Frog Named Sam doesn’t break any new lyrical ground, but it’s still some of the most fun I’ve had with a kids’ album this year, and it’s a testament to Rudnick and Friends’ originals that songs like the wonderful “Drink It Up” (“it’s like a milkshake when I see your face/I want to drink it up and take it with me”) stand shoulder-to-shoulder with well-chosen covers like “Old Joe Clark,” “Erie Canal,” and my daughter’s personal favorite, a shifty, album-closing take on “Greensleeves” (her quote: “It tricks every part of your body. I thought, ‘What the heck, ‘Greensleeves’? You tricked me'”).

If your tastes run toward the Subdudes/Beausoleil/Beau Jocque end of the spectrum, A Frog Named Sam should provide hours of entertainment for you and your kids — you can dance to the instrumental jigs, laugh at the stories of Sam the frog and the three little fishes, and simply enjoy the positive, uplifting tone of the entire album. Though I found the band’s take on “Erie Canal” to be a bit lackluster, there really isn’t a bad song on the album. We’ll be listening to this one for a long time.

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