And other music for (and by) children.
Duplex! Ablum (Mint) Click here to listen to "Mr. Slim (He's a Roamer)."
Composing children's music is tricky stuff. It's hard enough to come up with a song that kids will like, but you also have to make sure it won't drive their parents bats. The Vancouver band Duplex! solves this problem by bridging the generation gap: Five of them are in their 20s or 30s, but they also include an 11-year-old, a 12-year-old, and a 3-year-old (the xylophonist Abe Caruso). Everybody writes songs and sings on their debut, Ablum (it rhymes with "pablum")—that's leader Veda Hille crooning "Mr. Slim," an ode to an itinerant neighborhood kitty—and the results are sweet, daffy, and utterly charming. If younger listeners don't quite get why it's funny that "Yr Mama" includes a bit that goes "gabba gabba, we accept you, we accept you, one of us," or why their parents are getting wistful over a cover of Schoolhouse Rock's "Figure 8," well, grown-ups are entitled to a few mysteries.
Various Artists Childish Music (Staubgold)
Click here to listen to "Lullaby for William," by Dr. Rockit.
One of the high-water marks of music for very young children is Raymond Scott's 1962 Soothing Sounds for Baby, a series of simple, lovely electronic pieces. Most of the tracks on Childish Music, a collection of "naive sounds" composed by the laptop-music avant-garde and compiled by experimental musician Ekkehard Ehlers, have the tone and rhythms of Scott's work somewhere in their DNA. They don't often have quite enough melody to hold kids' attention, but they're almost all gentle, repetitive, and pretty. Pieces like "Lullaby for William," by Dr. Rockit (aka British dance producer Matthew Herbert) are just the sort of thing that babies like to relax with after a long day. A few of the album's contributors, such as Nobukazu Takemura, have made recordings this tender and lighthearted before, but most of them seem to have been liberated by the idea of putting together something to amuse children. And the electronic music world could really use a little more whimsy.
They Might Be Giants Here Come the ABCs (Disney Sound)
Click here to listen to "I C U."
They Might Be Giants had effectively been making kids' records for a long time—goofy, overtly educational, and often prefab-plastic-sounding—before they vaulted into the actual children's music arena with 2002's No! Their latest, Here Come the ABCs, is the soundtrack for the DVD of the same name, and more than a few tracks lose something without the visual antics of the Deeply Felt Puppet Theater. But the best songs (all of them about individual letters or the alphabet as a whole) are exactly what you'd wish for from this band: geeky wit combined with maddeningly unshakeable melodies. "I C U" is a heart-tugging country lament in the tradition of William Steig's CDB! Elsewhere, they devise a backward riposte to the familiar alphabet song ("Z Y X") and appraise "The Vowel Family" with a creepy-silly arrangement that owes a lot to the Residents.
Captain Bogg & Salty Pegleg Tango (Scabbydisc)
Click here to listen to "Pieces of 8ight."
Pirates are right up there with dinosaurs for permanent kid-cred, and Captain Bogg & Salty of Portland, Ore., have been flying the Jolly Roger in performance for years. Their second album of "buccaneer rock," Pegleg Tango, features songs about high-seas piracy, sea monsters, life on deck, the importance of warding off scurvy with limes, and plundered booty. "Pieces of 8ight" falls into that last category, and it comes off as an Easy Reader version of the Decemberists, or an amusement-park ride soundtrack designed by Tom Waits. As pirates go, Bogg & Salty are a bit on the unthreatening side—sadly, they don't attack inferior bands midset, toss them off the stage, and steal their equipment. But they do throw in a few jokes for their fans' parents, like a U2-cribbing introduction to the album's only cover: "This song is not a rebel song! This song is 'Nellie the Elephant!' "
Eyeball Skeleton #1 (My Pal God)
Click here to listen to "Eyeball Skeleton."
Eyeball Skeleton, another group of intergenerational rockers, formed when the singer/guitarist JJ Brown was in kindergarten and his singer/bassist brother Charlie was in first grade. Their dad helps out with a drum machine and more guitar and generally makes the homemade recordings collected on #1 sound like heavy-riffing Chicago punk rock circa 1989. But the surreal, monster-obsessed lyrics ("Bad Guy Stew," "Spooky Mummy Case") are pretty clearly the work of the band's junior members. Eyeball Skeleton's monomaniacal, Stooges-in-the-sandbox theme song has become something of a hit in underground kids' music circles—the New Jersey/Internet radio station WFMU's "Greasy Kid Stuff" show plays it virtually every week. The Browns will probably be mortified when somebody digs up the album to play for their college dormmates, but a few years later they'll realize they were actually incredibly cool 8-year-olds.
Douglas Wolk is the author of Live at the Apollo.
Audio excerpts from: Ablum © 2005 Mint; Childish Music © 2005 Staubgold; Here Come the ABCs © 2005 Disney Song; Pegleg Tango © 2005 Scabbydisc; #1 © 2005 My Pal God. All rights reserved.