Belle and Sebastian had a children's album out, I was expecting something a little different, sure. Somehow, though, I wasn't prepared for just how eccentric it turned out to be—or, to be honest, how much fun.
Down at the Zoo emerged from what's now the album's last track, the infectious "The Monkeys Are Breaking Out the Zoo." Belle and Sebastian recorded that song for Colours Are Brighter, a 2006 charitable children's album that Cooke himself put together featuring many prominent pop artists; the response was strong enough that Cooke started writing some other zoo-centric songs for kids, which he's now released under the name Too Many Cookes.
The result is extremely quirky—in the most wonderful way. Each song is introduced by the zookeeper, voiced by B&S drummer Richard Colburn in classic "Hello, children" style (and, naturally, a lovely Scottish burr). In turn he introduces us to the various zoo residents, who do not always behave exactly as one might have expected. (The rather fierce-sounding subjects of "We Are the Tigers," for instance, reveal their fondness for chocolate pies.)
The lyrics are simple and basic enough for the very youngest children, but the pleasant and constant randomness (the pachyderms who've eaten too many buns in "The Elephants Are Feeling Sick," the penguins who enjoy playing horns and wind instruments in "Playtime for the Penguins") had my six-year-old giggling in no time as well. And the upbeat tunes follow suit. They do contain much of the complexity one might expect from a Belle and Sebastian member (more than one, actually, since several pitched in here), including some marvelous horn arrangements. But they're also a throwback to earlier and simpler styles of kids' music than you tend to hear nowadays.
It all ends up feeling something like a children's-music rock opera—as if Tommy had been made child-appropriate and then performed by the Muppets. That sounds ridiculous, I know, but also like it could be a lot of fun—and that's what Down at the Zoo is like. I can certainly attest that kids love it almost instantly, if my boys are any indication, but parents will find themselves smiling at these songs—both bemusedly and joyfully—as well.
[Cover image courtesy of Too Many Cookes]