I’ve struggled with Joanie Leeds’ music since being introduced to it with her last album, I’m a Rock Star. I think there’s a fine line between aiming music at kids and pandering to them, and it’s one that Leeds doesn’t always tread successfully; she has a fondness for slick, sugary production and cuteness that verges on the saccharine. Listening to her albums can sometimes feel like sitting in a room with someone who won’t stop smiling — it’s pleasant, but a little exhausting.
For all their problems, though, Leeds’ songs succeed more often than not, simply by virtue of the fact that she’s a really smart songwriter with a beautiful voice — and that’s the case once again with her new album, What a Zoo!, which takes listeners on a 14-track rundown of various members of the animal kingdom. Some of her subjects are unsurprising (whales, hummingbirds, butterflies), but it’s a sign of Leeds’ cleverness that she works in songs about animals who don’t get a lot of musical love — which is impressive, given just how many kindie songs are about animals. Clams? Manatees? Possums? For goodness’ sake, tofurkey? They’re all part of Joanie Leeds’ zoo. She even makes room for a pair of covers: A fresh rearrangement of “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” (featuring a rap from Secret Agent 23 Skidoo) and an album-closing round of “Wimoweh.” Continue reading
Now here’s a neat idea: Give kids an entry-level introduction to jazz by taking them on a journey through some of its many permutations, from New Orleans to bebop to fusion, explaining (and demonstrating) the differences along the way. It’s an education that I’d guess many adults could use, and a fun way of clearing up a lot of the misconceptions that surround the music.
Unfortunately, the execution is the problem with Stellar Jazz Safari. Made in the Shade is clearly a solid band, and it’s a genuine pleasure to hear real jazz this cleanly produced, but they’ve taken a perfectly serviceable concept and smothered it in things it doesn’t need — like talking animal characters, annoyingly hammy narration, and sending the storyline into space for some odd reason. The between-song bits — and there are a lot of them — should help explain the music, and they do, but they also detract from what could have been a really enjoyable listening experience, primarily because they’re so corny. (Your leader on the safari is the trumpet-wielding Shader Gator; by the fifth or sixth track, I was having visions of turning him into a jacket.)
Is it terrible? Certainly not. It’s just hard not to wish that Made in the Shade had broadened its focus a little — Stellar Jazz Safari could have been fun for the whole family, but as it is, its strongest appeal will be to younger kids who are interested in learning more about jazz, and they don’t need pandering. On the band’s next safari, they should relax a little, and trust the music to do more of the talking.
He might be overstating things a little with the “funky” part of the title — no one is ever going to mistake Jason Riley for Booker T., or even the Sugar Free Allstars — but this is an utterly pleasant, thoroughly nifty nine-song instrumental tour through European and American folk traditions.
Anchoring a three-piece combo that features himself on “guitars and sundries,” Craig Kew on bass, and Terry Brock on violin, Riley serves up simple, affectionate takes on public domain favorites, running between two and four minutes apiece. It all adds up to a very quick listen — it’s over in less than half an hour — but it’s still an interesting case study in just how deeply kindie artists rely on folk music. If you’ve built a decent-sized collection of family music, you probably own more versions of “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” or “Camptown Races” than you can count, and you may not even notice when an artist like, say, Caspar Babypants covers a traditional number like “Shoo Fly” or “The Cuckoo.” Continue reading