October 18, 2010
A good deal of the excellent kids’ music I hear these days is uptempo, upbeat, and just generally up. Sure, Recess Monkey will throw in a slow song or even a lullaby now and then, but they’re the exceptions to the rule. And albums of nothing-but-lullabyes are often unsuitable for anything but putting actual infants to sleep, unable to hold the interest of toddlers (or their parents).
But then there’s Elizabeth Mitchell. Parents familiar with her previous three CDs, by now pretty much legends of the genre, already know of her ability to craft full albums of calm folky brilliance. On her latest release, Sunny Day, Mitchell and her family (mainly her husband, Daniel Littleton, and their nine-year-old daughter, Storey, who wrote two of the album’s 19 songs) branch out a little musically and work with some big names from both kid and adult music, without ever losing the pleasingly placid vibe that’s her trademark.
There are plenty of the traditional and original folk songs, charmingly arranged for banjo and guitar and the like, with which this artist first made her name. There are gorgeous covers in the same mold, from the Carter Family classic “Keep on the Sunny Side” (in which she’s joined by Levon Helm of The Band fame) to the 1937 hit “My Little Buckaroo” (a duet with Jon Langford of the Mekons). And then there are somewhat more surprising covers: Helm helping out again on both a properly rockin’ (yet somehow still soothing—I’m not certain how Mitchell does it!) rendition of Chuck Berry’s “School Days” that’s sung smartly by Storey, and a cool, driving version of “Mystery Train”; a warm, stripped-down take on Bill Withers’s “Lovely Day.”
The music sounds fabulous throughout, and the arrangements and instrumentation chosen seems to suit each song perfectly, some quite plain, some a lot more complex, but all just right. And then there’s Mitchell’s voice—smooth, gentle, sweet, with touches of Suzanne Vega and Natalie Merchant but really a sound all her own, it may be responsible for the most comforting vocals in kids’ music today.
If Mitchell’s previous work wasn’t also of such high quality, I’d call Sunny Day her masterpiece—but whatever I call it, it’s a parental must-have, perfect for those late afternoons and early evenings when everyone’s a bit tired and just wants some good music to laze around and unwind to. If she can get my two boys to crash on the sofa and just listen quietly together, as this CD already has on a few occasions, I’m pretty sure her magic will work on anyone…
[Cover image courtesy of Elizabeth Mitchell]