He Might Be Giant, But He Knows Children's Music
New York Times, August 24, 2008
by John Flansburgh
When John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants released the first of their 13 albums in 1986, they probably never imagined they would one day have millions of fans in the 3-foot-and-under set (and the parents who love them). The duo released three kiddie titles — "No!" (Rounder), "Here Come the ABCs" and, in February, "Here Come the 123s" (both Idlewild/Disney Sound) — that blend their folk-pop-rock sensibility with playful educational lyrics. Since 2007 Mr. Flansburgh and Mr. Linnell have hosted animated podcasts, available free on iTunes. For the past year they have carved out time for that series while crisscrossing the United States on a tour. (On Sunday they play the Nassau Coliseum.) Mr. Flansburgh, 48, was spending a few days off in the Catskills recently, writing a song for the duo's next children's album, when Winter Miller caught up with him by phone, and he shared what kind of music he would listen to if he had children.
"Baby Loves Hip Hop Presents the Dino-5" (Baby Loves Music) is a bit schizophrenic. Half of it is hip-hop songs and half are these spoken-word stories. Prince Paul, producer of De La Soul and co-founder of Handsome Boy Modeling School, alongside Digable Planets female rapper Ladybug, front a group of rappers performing in the guise of dinosaurs. They present singsong choruses and earnest lyrics that are accessible for even the youngest kids, with lyrics like "I might be big and scary but I'm really pretty nice." Overcoming fear of the unknown is a recurring theme. While it's refreshing that the settings and situations reflect the lives of contemporary city kids, the storytelling half of this album is startlingly old-fashioned. The mellifluous, maternal narration and the fable-ish, "good for you" kind of stories remind me of the kids' albums I grew up with and at times seem a little forced in this musical setting.
Tiny Masters of Today
"Bang Bang Boom Cake" (Great Society) is raw, joyful, noisy rap-rock. It is actually made by two kids and one adult, along with a mob of double cool indie-rock cameos, including the always brilliant Kimya Dawson. While technically not a kids' album — it has an anti-Bush song on it — it's a solid piece of do-it-yourself inspiration for any kid playing "Guitar Hero." Producer-drummer Russell Simins provides inspired, riotous beats. Sadly, almost all the vocals are treated with a Strokes-like distortion effect, which not only guarantees to date the album. It masks any suggestion of youth. I'm sure the aesthetic will not shock the ears of a 9-year-old boy; it could rock the ears of a 9-year-old boy in all of us.
Music to Educate
"Remember the Presidents" became available online recently, and it is strange. More the Shaggs than Schoolhouse Rock, this album is a primer in outsider art. The song "Before They Were the Presidents" lists the presidents by their previous occupation (spoiler alert: half of them were lawyers), while the song "Remember the Presidents," clocking in at a funereal four and a half minutes, is simply a rhymeless roll call of the presidents' names. "The Lesser Knowns" is a generous profile of our more mediocre presidents; the lyrics remind us, "They still gave their all!"
I was unaware of the magical spell Ms. Andrews cast on the would-be-princesses of America until I witnessed it firsthand at a kids' event. It is unclear what her real involvement is on "Julie Andrews Selects Her Favorite Disney Songs" (Disney), but her seal of approval seems appropriate as the album hardly strays from the tasteful mainstream her reputation connotes. This set includes much of the standard Disney fare. It's always great to hear Peggy Lee's inspired recording of "He's a Tramp" and the curiously delightful "Bare Necessities" from "The Jungle Book." It's so of another time; it's so otherworldly, so polished and cinematic.
If Richard Manuel and the Band had made a kids' album, "Catch That Train!" (Festival Five) might have been it. It's shockingly good. It has none of that weird aftertaste that so much of kids' music has. There is no distance between the performers and the material. Dan Zanes's duet with Natalie Merchant is bouncy enough to be effective for kids, yet it retains some secret sense of melancholy that speaks to an older audience. The tone is natural and breezy, and well suited to pass the "one-millionth listen" test parents often have to endure with kid stuff. But for some kids already listening to pop music, it might actually be too gentle to hold them. With the kids I know, their preferences are so different and so extreme. I know one kid who when he was 4 only liked the Ramones. My friend's 4-year-old daughter constantly requests "the angry song" from Dreamgirls ("And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going"). Another friend's kid is only into music that is robotic, like Daft Punk and Kraftwerk. Kids will all grow up to reveal why their obsessions seem so specific.