A few weeks ago we had The Doubleclicks on the show (you can see a video here) in support of their kids’ record Worst Superpower Ever. Prior to their visit, I’d listened to that a few times, along with their non-kids’ stuff, and enjoyed it all plenty. And the in-studio was super fun — the songs were of course witty and a nice change of pace in the kids’ world, as were the band members (sisters Aubrey and Angela), but what was maybe the best was watching them talk with Ella off-air. Grownups who spoke her language.
A week or so later, the band was kind enough to send an advance download of their new (not-for-kids) record, Lasers and Feelings. And it is, well, pretty great, and it made me pay closer attention.
Easy stuff to talk about first: They’ve added way more instrumentation to their guitar-and-cello core setup, and it sounds great. (As usual, I think many sax solos would be improved with trombone, but the sax solos on here largely work, and clarinets are great.) That’s not to say I don’t like the usual setup — it highlights their voices and lyrics nicely, and is certainly a nice change of pace from your standard band lineup — but it’s fun to hear some other instruments in the mix too.
Like I said, that’s the obvious stuff, and that — along with their usual witty lyrics and a growing nerd fanbase — is presumably why they just announced that they hit the Billboard Top Ten for comedy albums.
Here’s the thing though: Lasers and Feelings is not just a comedy album. I think it’s a (very funny) feminist album. (And putting it in the “comedy” category tends to distract from the fact that they’re excellent songwriters, both lyrically and melodically. This is not a novelty act.)
Sure, the album is funny — very funny at times — and there are certainly songs that are primarily for laughs (“The Guy Who Yelled Freebird,” “Rock Star Life,” etc.). And every song has humor at its creamy nougat center.
But I like to think of Lasers and Feelings as the sequel to Science Fair. (Granted, Angela and Aubrey didn’t have Science Fair until I handed it to them, and I’ve no idea if they’ve listened to it. Presumably they didn’t listen to it, travel back in time, and make Lasers and Feelings intending it to be a sequel. But stay with me here.)
Science Fair was (for me, and for I think all of the producers and artists) about giving girls power, to emphasize that there is no part of society where they don’t belong — about being themselves without being mocked, about feeling not just okay but awesome with being smart. That basic idea — everybody gets to be in every room — is what a lot of Lasers and Feelings is about too, albeit at a slight angle.
Consider the core song representing that idea, “Nothing to Prove.” (The video for it, featuring clips from fans all over, is supposed to be up soon.) In it, the band sings about finding their way into the nerd community — on much the same path that Ella is on right now — only to run into the notion of “fake geek girl tests”:
I know it feels good to have a contest you win; it would feel better if I wanted in. So women aren’t geeks, is that your conclusion? That this is some secret club based on exclusion? Twelve-year-old dorks would say that you’re being selfish, and then go and write in their journals in Elvish. * * * I’ve got cred but honestly I shouldn’t need it; this world needs all kinds of folks to complete it. You’ve got gamers and aritsts and comic subscribers, cosplayers, crafters, and fan fiction writers. You can stop – never say ‘fake geek’ again. Our club needs no bouncers; all who want can get in. But go ahead, if you want to own that role fully – I’ve got nothing to prove to a bully.
That is, I submit, the next step from Science Fair, especially the Nields’ song “Butterfly” and Rachel Loshak’s lovely “Oh Girl.” The former acknowledges how much it can suck out loud to be a smart (nerdy?) girl:
I know metamorphosis means you have to go to pieces first; things will not get better, ’til they get a whole lot worse. They are laughing in the girls’ room — they think they’re tearing down the sky. When I come out, finally find me, you’ll see a gold flight as we fly by, as I fly by…
And it’s not just The Doubleclicks’ “Nothing to Prove.” ”Oh, Mr. Darcy” provides a nice reminder not to get distracted by a British accent (“If a boy treats you with tasteful indifference, if he is handsome but bristly and cold, don’t be intrigued just because he’s ignoring you — not every asshole has a heart of gold.”). ”The Mystery’s Gone” points out how much one’s online presence can differ from their reality.
My point? Here, I’ve got one: If you’ve been listening to the show since we started (eight years in a couple of weeks!), you may well have a kid (boy or girl) who could use some of what’s on this album. (You’d probably like it too.)
It would be easy to get distracted by the plentiful laughs on Lasers and Feelings, and then you’d miss what is a really strong record with a resonant message. I cannot wait for Ella to get back from camp to hear it. I am positive it’s going to hit the spot for her. It is not a kids’ record — as you can see above, it has some language you might not love and some themes that aren’t aimed at the younger kids.
But it absolutely reflects much of how I want my kids to grow up: smart, funny, and — most importantly — being who they are.
(Also: writing in Elvish.)
P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank my brother and sister-in-law Mike & Jenn for introducing me to the band. They saw (if I remember right) their first public gig!
As usual, I was part of administering and a voting member of the Fids & Kamily Awards this year. Follow the link for a full description, but basically: a bunch of people who pay attention to family music vote on their favorites with a weighted ballot, and the albums with the most points win. It’s based on the Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll. Wayne Brady didn’t get any votes.
As you know if you listened on Saturday, Recess Monkey‘s Flying! won the top spot. But I thought I’d also share what my picks were. More than most years, I had a lot of ties, and relatively few huge spreads, so I’m just listing my top ten in alphabetical order by artist (though I’ll name my one favorite down below):
- Alastair Moock: These Are My Friends
- Billy Kelly: In the Family Garden
- Cat & a Bird: Cat & a Bird
- Dan Zanes: Little Nut Tree
- Deedle Deedle Dees: Strange Dees, Indeed
- Frances England: Mind of My Own
- Lunch Money: Original Friend
- Papa Crow: Things That Roar
- Recess Monkey: Flying!
- ScribbleMonster: Look Both Ways
My overall favorite CD of the year was the Deedle Deedle Dees’ Strange Dees, Indeed. Anyone who’s paid attention knows that I love the Dees (and, full disclosure, have hosted them in our house and consider them good friends). Their live shows have always been ridiculous fun. Now they’ve got a record that matches up with those shows, thanks to the producing talents of Dean Jones.
My life is particularly complicated right now, but I didn’t want to let the release date of Dan Zanes’s new record, Little Nut Tree, go by without at least a quick mention.
When asked about what makes for great family music, my answer is often centered on genuineness — the sense, as I said last week, that the artists “are doing the only thing that they could possibly be doing” in performing music for families. That has always been the fundamental appeal of Zanes’s music. It’s not gimmicky or particularly complex (though there’s more going on musically than might meet the ear), but it is simply real. The guests don’t feel like they were chosen strategically, but instead because they were right for the song (or maybe the songs are picked as being right for the artists). The production isn’t flashy, but instead gets out of the way of the songs and the musicians. When he’s had missteps (76 Trombones, say) it’s not because the CDs are bad — they just don’t feel like they were organic. But those missteps are rare; the vast bulk of his family discography simply feels right. And real. And sincere.
Little Nut Tree continues that tradition of genuineness. It’s just plain terrific.
(Man, I’ve been listening to a lot!)
Mister G – Bugs. (In the interest of full disclosure, Ben’s a friend and I’ve helped him out scheduling shows, etc. But I don’t have any financial interest in it.) Most of the time, I shy away from artists who do much genre-hopping — jack of all trades, master of none and all that. But Bugs goes all over the place — ska, bossa nova, rock, etc. — without feeling like it’s lurching randomly. That’s largely because all of the songs have the steady presence of a skilled songwriter and the foundation of great performances (including Rani Arbo and others). With this record, Mister G has managed to capture on CD the energy and engagement he has in his wildly popular live shows. Circled tracks: “Bugs,” “Grilled Cheese,” “Snow Day,” “Shark in My Bathtub,” and “Pam the Pug.” We’ll premiere “Bugs” on the show this Saturday.
Same deal as before — my very short thoughts on a few new things that have come in the mail, with notations of what track numbers got written down and circled, which is how I note which songs I’m most excited to hear on the radio machine.
ScribbleMonster & His Pals – Look Both Ways. ScribbleJim’s obsession with Sesame Street is well-known — a huge part of the guest DJ sets he’s done for us have always been obscure songs from the show, which means he’s a very specific and hilarious type of hipster — so this is, as I thought someone said (but I can’t find now), the record ScribbleMonster was born (spawned? created by a mad scientist?) to record. And it is exactly the right kind of insane genius. The arrangements are terrific and the song selections excellent. Circled songs: “Sesame Street Theme,” “Five People In My Family,” “Good Morning, Mister Sun,” “Clink, Clank,” “Stop!,” “I Want To Hold Your Ear,” “Just Happy To Be Me,” “Loud And Soft,” and “Thirty-Two Cracks In The Sidewalk.” And the last three got arrows, too. (And I wrote down every single track for getting airplay eventually.) Love this record.
Rudy Trubitt, Wear My Pajamas to School. Rudy of the on-hiatus Sippy Cups wrote virtually all of my favorite songs from that band, and this advance single is another in the line of super catchy guitar pop songs. We’ll play it on the show this Saturday (dare I call it a world premiere?) and I can’t wait for more.
Cat and a Bird, Cat and a Bird. Intricately layered jazzy stuff featuring violin, upright bass, and a bunch of other sorta random sounds (and the lovely voice of Emily Chimiak), this CD has gotten a lot of attention. Live at KindieFest, they took a different tack, with two violins and a 12-string guitar, and it worked in a totally different (but still good) way, with much of that being based on the strength of the songs. They’ll be at the Green River Festival this summer. Circled tracks: “Bee Jive,” “Cat and a Bird,” “Lion and the Challengers,” “Night Owl,” and “I Wanna Be Like You.”
So for part of the trip to and from KindieFest, I finally listened to some records all in a row — these days, I do a lot more sampling than full-record-listens. So, a few thoughts on some recent releases below. I like all three of the ones up today a lot — they’re fairly different from each other, but each does exactly what I think the artists were trying to do.
A note: When I’m listening to music for airplay consideration, I write down all of the track numbers I would be up for playing at some point, and circle those numbers of songs I really like. (And then a few will get arrows or exclamation points. It’s complex.) So I’ll note the tracks I circled below too.
Recess Monkey – Flying! First off, great illustrations from local hero Jarrett J. Krosoczka, and a terrific overall concept and theme. And Drew totally rocks the shiny tights. Produced by Tor Hyams (who is, full disclosure, one of my business partners in KindieFest), it’s a great-sounding record with the reliably insanely catchy pop songs. Circled tracks: “Day Job,” “Covered in Band Aids,” “My Valentine,” “Your Favorite Book,” and “Invisible Friend” (which features Molly Ledford in a guest appearance that does sound of a piece with the song, something I talked about on my collaboration panel).
Billy Kelly – The Family Garden. More than his earlier stuff, this sounds more like a band (which I guess makes sense, since I don’t think he had a band as such last time around). Eclectic in themes, goofy as all get-out, and utterly authentic and sincere (but not treacly). Circled tracks: “The Family Garden,” “Why Is the Moon Following Me?,” “We Could Be Pen Pals” (another Molly Ledford visit, this one maybe a little less perfectly integrated but still lovely), “Scootdootdoodlydoo,” “It’s Close Enough,” “The Happy Happy Whistling Song” (my notes here remind me to play it next to an Andrew Bird song), and “The Invention of the Straw.”
Brady Rymer – Love Me For Who I Am. I so like three of the first four songs on this record that I found the second half a little bit of a letdown, at least on the first listen. But boy, those first four — especially “I Don’t Like Change” — I like a lot. (That one got an arrow next to it.) Rootsy, performed in a way that feels somehow simultaneously impeccably performed and loose. I was surprised then to hear that the drums on the record are pre-recorded loops (read more about his decision to use them at Dadnabbit, a site you should be reading constantly, incidentally). Technology! Plastics! Whatever, it works here. Circled songs: “Love Me For Who I Am,” “Picky Eater,” the aforementioned “I Don’t Like Change,” and “Soft Things” (featuring Laurie Berkner in a smart guest spot).
I’ve got some more CDs I listened to ready — including ScribbleMonster‘s insane genius Look Both Ways, but they’re all at the studio and I’m at home. So I’ll try to write a little about those soon, and to do this a little more regularly, since, at least for now, I’m not doing any other family music writing.