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August 30, 2010

New Music: Underground Playground


Let’s face it: For just about any parent who likes hip-hop, the phrase “hip-hop for kids” is filled with dread. Almost all of the attempts at it can be summed up by the word joke—either intentional (I give Elmo’s occasional rapping on Sesame Street, which is meant to be funny, a pass) or horribly, horribly not. So I once tended to view the few children’s hip-hop CDs I encountered with skepticism.

Then Secret Agent 23 Skidoo came out with his first album, Easy, in 2008. As I’ve written before, and so many other reviewers wrote at the time, it was a revelation: “kid-hop,” as he calls it, was suddenly a viable genre after all. The key—really the key for almost all art forms for kids—was that 23 Skidoo doesn’t dumb things down for children. The subject matter was obviously different than it would be on an adult rap album, but the beats, the rhythms, and the rhymes were not, for the first time in my experience. (It didn’t hurt that 23 Skidoo has been a rapper and producer of grown-up hip-hop, with Asheville group G.F.E., for well over a decade—though it also must be said that others of similar description have made such forays with far less success.)

My wife and kids loved Easy as much as I did, and it got tons of play around the house. We found ourselves eagerly anticipating his follow-up, though my own anticipation was tempered by a little knowledge of sophomore slumps. Now that he was established, could 23 Skidoo maintain his high standards without simply repeating himself?

I shouldn’t have worried. Underground Playground, which comes out August 31 (tomorrow!), is still clearly the work of the reigning king of kid-hop, but it expands on his debut, too. He dabbles in crossover with other genres, from the sunny singsong reggae of “Road Trip” to the Pogues-esque final section of “Wildlife” (representing a cheetah, fittingly enough). Meanwhile, his lyrics again convey positive messages on subjects like friendship (“Secret Handshake”) and honesty (the Public Enemy–tinged “Speak the Truth”) without ever getting finger-waggy, or losing the loose sense of fun that’s the core of so much quality hip-hop. (The verbiage in “Mind Over Matter,” a song about being yourself—perhaps 23 Skidoo’s core message—is a particular highlight.)

Perhaps most important, the beats and riffs he lays down are top-notch—catchy and addictive, they have your head bouncing in no time. Even here the new album pushes envelopes, though. While the cement is still the old-school hip-hop sound this artist clearly loves (think KRS-One), you also hear the influence of more modern names, especially in the song arrangements: Eminem, Jay-Z. Frankly, the eclectic nature of 23 Skidoo’s work is reminiscent of a lot of people, but if I had to pick one, it'd have to be Michael Franti, with whom he shares both positivity of message and an ability to rap effectively over many different styles of music.

Like its predecessor, Underground Playground is an awful lot of fun to listen to, and if your kids are anything like mine, they'll be asking to hear certain tracks over and over. (It’s been getting serious car mileage lately for us!) And you won’t mind a bit. In fact, when you realize you’ve left it on in the car when the kids aren’t around, you might just leave it in there, and coast down the road with your head nodding.

As a taste, here's a video for another track from the album, “Chase the Rain”:



[Image courtesy of Secret Agent 23 Skidoo]

August 25, 2010

New Music: Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti


The all-star-musician benefit concept goes back years, of course, to George Harrison's Bangladesh concert, and a bit later the "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and "We Are the World" singles. But with the exception of a few giants like Pete Seeger (who's been doing benefit and charity work with his music his whole career, really), there haven't been enough big names in kids' music for such a thing to be possible in the genre.

But Dean Jones (no, not the one from the original Love Bug movies—the frontman of kids' band Dog on Fleas), with a little help from the recent explosion of talent in this genre, has changed all that. Back in January, Jones desperately wanted to do something to help the earthquake victims in Haiti; he came up with the idea of a kindie-rock album to raise money. He joined forces with KindieFest cofounder Bill Childs, and the pair proceeded to put together an incredibly impressive roster of artists for the project.

The result is Many Hands: Family Music for Haiti, a CD of 22 songs, one each from many of the top children's musicians working today. Seriously, if I were making a list of the genre's top echelon of talent, it would look a lot like this track list: Recess Monkey, They Might Be Giants, Frances England, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, Jonathan Coulton, Dan Zanes, Gustafer Yellowgold, Elizabeth Mitchell...the list goes on and on. Even the venerable Seeger himself contributed a track!

The proceeds (all the greater because everyone involved in the album's production, replication, and distribution either donated or heavily discounted their services) will benefit the Haitian People's Support Project, an organization with a long history of important work in the country. Knowing this is certainly one benefit to parents and kids who purchase this CD.

But of course, you're also getting the best possible sampler of the cutting edge of today's kids' rock, pop, folk, and hip-hop. If your kids are already familiar with most of the artists, they'll be excited to get a new song from so many of them between new releases. (My five-year-old's favorites: "Fiddlehead Fern," by Recess Monkey, and "Quite Early Morning" from Seeger.) And if they're not, Many Hands offers the best single way I've seen to get a taste of so many of the genre's leading lights, all in one place, and find out which your kids (and you!) might want to hear more of.

So it's a great album, and a great opportunity, all serving a great cause. (I should also mention that there are still a few release shows upcoming in September in Brooklyn; Portland, Oregon; and Northampton, Mass., each featuring a number of the artists on the CD, so if you're in or near those places, check those out, too!)

[Cover image courtesy of Spare the Rock Records]

August 23, 2010

New Books: Chalk

I've mentioned once before how magical a wordless picture book by an accomplished illustrator can be, and thanks to the generosity of our friend Tanya, we've just encountered one that both my sons are currently crazy about—Chalk, by Bill Thomson. (Somehow we missed it when it first came out early in the year, so I'm especially grateful to her for bringing it to our attention!)

The story is straightfoward: Three kids discover that their sidewalk chalk drawings are coming to life—good when one girl draws a bunch of beautiful butterflies, less so when a boy (natch) draws a T. rex. But it's told via a series of drop-dead-gorgeous illustrations that look so photorealistic, it's hard to believe at first that they're illustrations. (There's a note at the back assuring readers that they are, in fact, drawn, and Thomson even details his fascinating process for achieving such realistic detail, complete with his remarkable sketches for Chalk, on the publisher's website.)

It isn't simply that the art is stunning, though; Thomson does a fantastic job of telling the story without a single word. The result is a quietly masterful page turner of a picture book that, if my kids are any indication at all, will have yours obsessed in short order.

[Cover image courtesy of Marshall Cavendish]

August 20, 2010

Old School: Drive-in Movies



I'm really cheating in calling this an Old School, since I'd never been to a drive-in movie theater in my life before last week, and until recently I had no idea there were even any functioning ones left. My eyes were opened by my friends Joyce and Michael (the proprietor of the wonderful movie blog Cinema du Meep), and after some abortive attempts to attend one of the handful of options within relatively easy driving distance of NYC this summer, we wondered if there might be any drive-ins near the spot where we were vacationing in Rhode Island.

As it turned out, there is one. (Well, it's on the other side of the state from where we were--but it's a really small state!) As seems to be the general practice at many of these places nowadays, you pay an entry fee to one screen there, at which two movies play each evening, usually a child- (and not necessarily adult-) friendly option first, and something R-rated second. With young kids, obviously, you generally just go for the first one, rather than attempting to get your toddler to shut his eyes and ears for two-plus hours of Inglourious Basterds.

In this case, there were two screens that were starting out with kid flicks, and our choice was between Despicable Me and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore. Being big saps, we let our older son choose, and predictably enough, he picked the one that didn't at least have Steve Carell's voice going for it. He loves cats. And dogs. (We were going to get Kenneth the Page either way, though—he appears to have a corner on the drive-in kiddie movie this summer.)

Now, this is not a review of the Cats & Dogs movie, though I will admit it wasn't as bad as I expected. (So nice to see Nick Nolte and Bette Midler working together again, even if the last time they actually had to be in the same place at the same time. And I'm always a sucker for a Wallace Shawn voiceover.) The experience of watching a silly movie with your kids in your parked car, though: This I give two thumbs up. Many more veteran families around us came better prepared, actually, parking their SUVs backwards and essentially tailgating for the film. But for our first go, we found it delightful just being enclosed together for the experience. It blew our two-year-old away in particular—his eyes got implausibly wide when he saw that giant white wall turn into a giant video. The whole thing was the perfect summer shared family experience.

Plus, we got Sean Hayes's vocal impersonation of Hannibal Lecter. Truly something for everyone.

[Photo by Drm31, via Wikimedia Commons]

August 19, 2010

New Books: StoryWorld



I have always been envious of those natural storytelling parents, the kind who sit down next to their child's bed each night and invent rich tales full of memorable characters and exciting plot twists. On the rare occasions I've attempted this, I've found myself internally grasping at straws, with results that are both bizarrely random and overly fixed on getting to the next plot point. ("Once upon a time there was a...muskrat! And he lived in the forest next door to his best friend, a...sloth! And one day they awoke to find...the forest was on fire! So they rushed to...their other friend, an elephant, yeah...and he lived next to a lake, and he took the water in his trunk and put out the fire with it, and the forest was saved. The end.") At the abrupt endings of these tales, my sons tend to look more bemused than amused.

I had more or less given up, accepting that facile, spellbinding storytelling wasn't among my gifts, until I saw the new StoryWorld, by John and Caitlin Matthews. It's an originally British package of beautifully illustrated cards, very much in the style of tarot cards, each featuring a character ("The Mother", "The Youngest Daughter," "The Cat"), a location ("The Castle"), or a magical/potentially magical thing or place ("The Magic Mirror," "The Door to Faeryland," "The Star Blanket"). Each contains a few leading questions on the back ("Where is the cat going on this starry night?"), as well as a number of suitably ambiguous happenings in the background of the illustration on the front.

The point of all this, of course, is inspiration. As the small included instruction book explains, you just pick out a certain number of cards—your child's favorites, or random ones—and then weave them together into a narrative. You can use the provided questions as jumping-off points, or ignore them and come up with your own ideas; you can do the same with all the little things occurring on each card. (You soon discover that these all link together, with major items on one card turning up in supporting roles on others—besides being gorgeous, these illustrations are intricately conceived and crafted.)

The stories still don't tell themselves, of course. But I found these little crutches remarkably freeing the first time I tried: I wasn't grasping for the core characters and ideas of my story anymore, and so I could devote my (clearly limited) creative imagination to filling it out with descriptions and plotting. There's certainly a learning curve—I don't mean to imply I've been transformed into Elmore Leonard or something—but I can feel myself moving along it, rather than completely stuck in place as I was before.

More important than my own storytelling education, though, is that my five-year-old is mesmerized. He's enjoying my stories from the cards, sure, but he's also been eager from the start to use these tools to engage in his own tales. Right now he's in the middle of a stretch where he's adding a couple of cards' worth of plot to a continuing story we both contribute to each night. Nothing like this ever happened before StoryWorld.

I'm hoping we can both eventually reach a point where we don't need the cards anymore. (Dash is a lot closer than I am.) I'm optimistic, and if I'm right to be, StoryWorld will have taught us how to invent compelling tales at a moment's notice. While my son may have been on his way to that anyway (his mother is much better at it than I am, so he has those genes or environment, or both, working for him), I certainly wasn't, so I'll be forever grateful. 
[Photos: Whitney Webster.]

August 17, 2010

New Music: Rock-n-Roll Recess


Most of the makers of kids' music I've written about here have been fairly established artists, with a proven track record of excellent CDs: Justin Roberts, Recess Monkey, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo (more on him soon, by the way). This is not a bad thing by any means; it's great to have so many musicians and songwriters coming out with music for children that you know in advance will be of high quality.

But, as with any genre of music, it's always a special thrill to discover a great album from an artist who's new to you, one you can add to the personal canon. That's how I'd describe the debut release from the Bazillions, Rock-n-Roll Recess. The Minneapolis band's subject matter is standard kids'-universe stuff that children will glom onto easily—macaroni and cheese, friendship, messy rooms—but songwriters Adam and Kristin Marshall know how to create hooks that are irresistible to kids and parents alike. (I'm finding myself pleasantly addicted to the one from "Super Sonic Rocket Bike" these days.) The music is sunny, jangly, and remarkably catchy, and parents who were fans of bands like R.E.M. in their youth will feel very much at home when it's playing.

The Bazillions have also come up with something I haven't seen before on a kids' CD: They've included versions of two of their most appealing songs without the vocal tracks, so children—and, sure, parents too—can sing to the music by themselves, karaoke-style. (With these songs, they'll want to, believe me.) At first I cynically thought this was just a pad-the-CD gimmick, but now they have me wondering why more kids' bands don't do it.

So add the Bazillions to the list: I'll be looking forward eagerly to their next release, and the one after that, and....


[Cover image courtesy of the Bazillions.]

August 16, 2010

Parental Suicide?

Like many parents, Whitney and I have a great fear and loathing of noisy toys. There are the ones that play the same annoying tune in a horrible synth-y tone over and over again. There are also the talking toys, usually branded (Thomas the train, characters from Pixar movies), that repeat a catchphrase endlessly, and inevitably start going off on their own as their batteries die out, scaring the crap out of us by suddenly informing us how useful we are in a pitch-black room at 1 a.m. (Before we became parents, we were warned that this would happen by a hilarious Denis Leary routine, but we ended up purchasing the talking toys just the same. We just don't listen....)

But we'd noticed that our younger son, Griffin, who was about to turn two, seemed to love maracas and drums and all things rhythmic, and my wife suggested we get him a little drum pad from the great series of realistic (and surprisingly affordable, given that realism) musical instruments from First Act Discovery. And strangely, my first reaction was not "Are you crazy? We'll regret that from the moment he turns It on!" (To be fair, that may have been my second reaction.)

We did pause to think it over: Would we find ourselves holding our heads in pain daily, seriously considering making our son's prized birthday gift "disappear," tragically, overnight? (Or more long-term, would we rue the day we encouraged our son to embrace drumming?)

Well, maybe we will. But such considerations, in the end, don't have a prayer against the unbeatable counterargument: Think of his face when he sees it, and sees what it does. He's going to go crazy for this.

And since he did indeed, we're feeling pretty good about the whole thing right now, though we know it's early yet. Most of me is still hoping this doesn't lead to a real drum kit in the basement in a few years, but you know what? Part of me hopes it does. Weird.

[Photo courtesy of First Act Discovery.]

August 12, 2010

Gone Fishin'

I've been on vacation this past week-plus, and was extremely silly and thought I would post from here. Shaky Internet connections and a family not thrilled with the idea of nightly disappearances for that purpose have made this predictably (if you're not me, apparently) impossible.

But I've been gathering fuel for new posts and will hit the ground running come Monday.

August 4, 2010

New Books: Three Ladies Beside the Sea


I’ve previously mentioned the amazing New York Review Children’s Collection; most of its little-known classics I’ve previously encountered have been chapter books. But the company’s latest reissue is a 1969 picture book, in rhyming couplets. Oh, did I mention that the illustrations are by Edward Gorey?

Both my wife and I have long been big Gorey fans—in fact, I think one of my first birthday gifts to her was a copy of Amphigorey Also. And as I've mentioned before, our older son, Dash, is a big fan of all things spooky, so we gave him his first introduction to Gorey’s work (that same book) early, when he was four. Things were going fine—he loved the macabre tone and the style and humor of the artwork—until, halfway through “The Blue Aspic,” I suddenly remembered how it ends: With the haughty opera star stabbed to death by her longtime anonymous admirer/stalker. (The panel informs us of this with Gorey’s usual calm equanimity.)

So it was with particular excitement that I picked up Three Ladies Beside the Sea. There was no guarantee that a similar surprise didn’t await within, but the slim volume, written by Rhoda Levine, didn’t have that look. That impression was correct—this book is aimed at fairly young children (though its charm and beauty will appeal to older ones too), and there’s nothing more shocking in it than a woman who often spends hours up in a tree.

The story, as the title suggests, is of three elegant (this is Gorey, after all) women who live in neighboring houses by the ocean. Edith is happy and bubbly; Catherine is quiet but positive; Alice is pensive and distant. The three are friends, and even occasionally meet on the beach to play chamber music together. So Edith and Catherine are a bit worried about Alice’s habit of spending long hours in a tree, through all nature of weather, gazing at the sky as if searching for something.

When they ask her about it, she tells them that she once encountered a bird whose plumage was so lovely and whose song was so beautiful that she’s been floating ever since. Now she’s compelled to watch the skies for its return, as only hearing its song again can return her to the ground. After taking a moment to process this, the other two come up with some suggestions that might keep their friend out of the tree, with mixed results. (I won’t give away the ending, except to say it’s a happy one.)

It’s all charmingly told by Levine in short quatrains of well-crafted, unforced poetry that’s perfect for young readers. And then there are the illustrations, whose ornate gorgeousness will be no surprise to anyone familiar with Gorey’s work. Still, the dazzling quality of his art never gets old for me. (Nor, apparently, to my two-year-old, who has claimed Three Ladies Beside the Sea as part of his bedtime-reading canon—every night.)

In sum, it’s yet another gem to add to the set the New York Review Children’s Collection has already accumulated.

[Cover image courtesy of the New York Review Children’s Collection.]