Tag Archives: Compact Disc

CD Review: Justin Roberts, “Pop Fly”

Justin Roberts – Pop Fly (2008, Carpet Square)
purchase this album (Amazon)

I listen to a lot of it now, obviously, but I’ve never been all that proactive about finding new kids’ music — partly because I’ve been lucky enough to have a steady stream of the stuff sent here for work, and partly because I’ve always made a conscious effort to feed my children a varied musical diet. My daughter loves Danielle Sansone as much as she loves Springsteen, and the only time I feel a panicky need to find something new for her to love is when she asks to listen to the mix CD of songs by the cursed Raffi that a family “friend” sent us, which is part of why I’m only just now hearing Pop Fly, the latest release from Justin Roberts — oh, and why I’m just now hearing Justin Roberts for the first time, too.

If you aren’t a kids’ music aficionado, me losing my Justin Roberts virginity may not seem like a big deal, but if you’re among the truly hip breeders, you know how embarrassing it is for a kids’ music critic to be unfamiliar with a giant of the genre like Roberts, who has been earning raves since releasing his first album, Great Big Sun, in 1998. Having now heard Pop Fly three or four dozen times, I understand why; it’s become the biggest cliche in all of children’s music to say an album is as much fun for the parents as it is for the kids, but Roberts actually manages to pull it off here. No, seriously, you guys — where the most successful kids’ recording artists generally tend to have a gift for writing songs that look at life through a child’s eyes, Justin Roberts is instead a brilliant pop songwriter who just happens to make music that’s appropriate for a younger audience.

Pop Fly is full of wonderful little gems, from the opening title track (about daydreaming in the outfield, natch) on through the heartbreakingly beautiful closer, “Fruit Jar,” which catalogs all of a father’s most important wishes for a child, and hits nary a false note in between. The arrangements are instantly accessible enough for little ears, but smart enough for discerning music lovers, and the production is full of nifty pop touches, like the tasty brass in the title track and “Backyard Super Kid,” or the subtle synths in “She’s a Yellow Reflector” and “Stay-At-Home Dad,” or the Beach Boys-inspired backing vocals in “Kickboard, Baby, Yeah,” or…well, you get the idea. Lyrically, it’s all very sweet stuff, delivered with Roberts’ endearingly square vocals, but none of it feels sugary — even when he’s singing about sisterly love (“She’s a Yellow Reflector”) or looking up to a dad (“Stay-At-Home Dad”) and grandmother (“From Scratch”), the songs come across as heartfelt rather than saccharine, which is a crucial distinction, especially if you make a habit of letting your kids take over the stereo.

In short, I love this album. In fact, I love it so much that Pop Fly ended up on my iPod, not just my daughter’s. I could go on, but that probably says it all, doesn’t it?

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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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CD/Book Review: Trout Fishing in America, “My Name Is Chicken Joe”

Trout Fishing in America – My Name Is Chicken Joe (2009, Secret Mountain)
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Trout Fishing in America celebrates its 30th anniversary this year — and the fact that you most likely didn’t know that, but have never heard a lick of the roots duo’s music, explains why they won’t be commemorating the occasion with a lavish boxed set, sold-out arena tour, or all-star tribute record. They will, however, be taking a fond look back at some of the most popular songs from their multiple forays into kids’ music with My Name Is Chicken Joe, a beautifully made ersatz best-of that sets their song “Chicken Joe” alongside some eye-catching illustrations from artist Stéphane Jorisch to create a handsome, albeit plot-free, book to go along with the 11-track CD. And if that isn’t enough to make you whip out your wallet, there’s also a DVD containing a “Chicken Joe” music video of sorts.

If you’re a member of the Dirty Linen crowd, you’re no doubt already very familiar with Trout Fishing in America, but if you aren’t yet among the enlightened, My Name Is Chicken Joe functions as a perfect gateway into their children’s music. Though it cherry-picks old favorites from the catalog, Joe feels as cohesive as a really well-made new album. The songs are all as wonderful as you’d expect from a band that’s earned four Grammy nominations, all grounded solidly in deceptively simple folk arrangements and topped off with gentle, positive messages about kindness, personal identity, friendship, and family. (There are a couple of detours into mildly negative territory with “Why I Pack My Lunch” and “Boiled Okra and Spinach,” but they’re about having to choke down the food your parents pick for you, and who can’t sympathize with that?)

A lot of kids’ records claim to contain music that parents can enjoy even when their children aren’t around, but My Name Is Chicken Joe really is that kind of album. Songs like “My Best Day,” “Something Sweet,” and “Count on Me” are worth having in your collection no matter how old you are. If you’re any kind of fan of roots music — and I’m talking stripped-down bluegrass stuff as well as AAA favorites like John Hiatt — or you know kids who might be, purchase this set without fear the next time a birthday or other special occasion rolls around.

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