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November 11, 2010

New Music: Mind of My Own

Sometimes I forget that not every parent is as immersed in the world of kids’ music as I am. Take Frances England, for instance: I sometimes take it for granted that now, with the release of her third album, everyone knows about her immense talent and puts her in her rightful place at the very forefront of today’s children’s musicians.

Then I remember that it took time (and often an established prior career in music for adults) for artists like Dan Zanes to build their reps—and also that parents of young kids have, shall we say, a number of draws for their attention, children’s musicians generally not being at the forefront. So for the uninitiated, here’s a quick recap of England’s path thus far.

Back in 2006, England recorded a set of songs for a fundraiser for her son’s preschool. She didn’t think of herself as a professional musician, and she didn’t expect anyone outside that circle to ever hear it. But Fascinating Creatures blew away everyone who heard it, and word began to spread. A few months later, it won the 2007 Oppenheim Platinum Music Award, and kids’-music critics (including my former colleague at Cookie, Christopher Healy, who taught me everything I know about covering this beat) were singing the praises of this out-of-nowhere independent artist.

Understandably, anticipation was high for England’s follow-up, 2008’s Family Tree. It didn’t disappoint; both CDs would end up on critics’ lists of the top ten kids’ albums of the decade. It’s a common reviewer’s tool to compare new artists to established ones, but the striking thing about England is that from the start, her sound has been all her own. She’s by no means without influences, of course, and as you listen you’re put in mind of artists like Ani DiFranco, Suzanne Vega, Tift Merritt, Neko Case, and even They Might Be Giants. But her songs never sound “just like” someone else.

More to the point, her unique sound is really, really good; England has established herself with almost disturbing ease as one of the best songwriters in the genre. On her latest release, Mind of My Own, she works for the first time with a full band, several guest artists, and an outside producer (Tor Hyams, whose credits include work with Perry Farrell, Lisa Loeb, and Deborah Harry). But she never lets that core of solid composition and musicianship get away from her—and so, for a third time, she’s given us one of the tightest, best-crafted CDs you’ll ever hear.

Mind of My Own also has a candylike appeal to kids—it’s one of those albums that goes into the CD changer and doesn’t come out for months. Our six-year-old in particular just keeps playing it over and over again, circling back multiple times to sing along with the insanely catchy “All the Ways.” As always, all the tracks are remarkably strong—there are no weak links on a Frances England album—but highlights for our family include the peppy title track (about all the great ideas kids have that their parents find somewhat less that great); the whimsical, TMBG-esque bio-song “Jacques Cousteau”; and the sweetly matter-of-fact “Place in Your Heart” (a love song from the POV of a child’s favorite cuddle toy). In addition to her massive musical and vocal talents, England has a knack for writing smart, clever lyrics that encapsulate child experiences and viewpoints from their perspective. Her songs feel true to kids, not the least bit patronizing or “talking down” to them, and not surprisingly, they like that a lot.

So okay: Frances England is probably not, to this point, as well known as TMBG or Zanes or Laurie Berkner. But she should be. And with CDs like her first two and now Mind of My Own, I’d say she’s well on her way. (Check out her blog, too!)

[Cover image courtesy of Frances England]

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