The first songs I ever learned by heart were from Sesame Street. “C Is the Cookie”, “Rubber Duckie” and “Doin’ the Pigeon” were silly, funny and completely memorable. From there, my parents’ small but select record collection would provide the next batch of music that would leave an impression on my still forming mind. Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray and Elvis Presley were all favorites in the house and there was a time when I knew those records backwards and forwards. The jump from Sesame Street to adult MOR fare isn’t as difficult as you might think. The very basics of what makes a song easily remembered is pretty much the same for kids as it is for adults. A big recognizable voice, easy to understand lyrics and a simple hook are the basic signposts that people both young and old latch on to when a song worms its way into the brain.
The fine people at Paper Bag Records have recruited some of the indie rock world’s finest players to pen songs for kids. See You on the Moon! Songs for Kids of All Ages is an attempt to make a record that “kids can listen to with their parents” and for the most part, it works.
The disc starts with two tracks that are perfect bullseyes, in making songs that will appeal to parents, kids and yes, indie rock fans. Low’s Alan Sparhawk leads off the pack with a live-recording of “Be Nice to People with Lice”. In the vein of story-singers like Raffi or Sharon, Lois & Bram, Sparhawk’s contribution is a darkly funny, acoustic ode to one of the more embarrassing and public childhood traumas. However, it’s the Great Lake Swimmers title track that will probably be the biggest repeat button favorite in the car. Songwriter Tony Dekker knows that the best kids songs are populated with words that can be repeated. The song, written from a child’s perspective, ruminates on a variety of future vocations including veterinarian, farmer, carpenter, singer and astronaut. With a verse dedicated to each profession, Dekker sings about the kinds of sounds you might hear in each one, with his bandmates providing the noises for farm animals, tools and drums. Great Lake Swimmers pull off the whole affair with effortless charm, and it thankfully avoids being cloying in the way these sorts of songs can often be.
While the first two songs follow a traditional approach, some of the disc’s other highlights offer a bit more of a challenge. In what will certainly be talked about in other reviews for this disc, Sufjan Stevens offers his take on the traditional French Christmas carol “The Friendly Beasts”. Written from the perspective of the animals present at Christ’s birth, Stevens injects the song with his familiar brand of rollicking Americana. Not every child will be able to latch onto the rhythms, and the vocals of the last verse are nearly obscured by instruments themselves. No doubt many will take offense at Stevens offering such a pointedly Christian song on a disc aimed at children, but this song—and what made Seven Swans so fantastic—doesn’t look to sermonize but to celebrate. If you can see the difference between the two, Stevens’s track offers ample rewards. It’s the electronic artists, however, that offer the biggest departures. Kid Koala and Lederhosen Lucil’s “Fruit Belt” is a two-minute record scratching shout out about fruit that actually doesn’t sound too unlike Le Tigre. Lucil hits the right tone for the track, and if kids want to sing along, her clear, fun delivery will lead the way. If “Fruit Belt” hints at singalongs, Apostle of Hustle’s grimy street beat-driven “24 Robbers” pretty much demands it. The lyrics themselves are fairly nonsensical, but follow the rhythm children use for songs sung while skipping rope. With reverbed handclaps, pulsing bass, and multi-tracked children’s vocals, this will have the rims of the minivan shaking for sure, while just being alien enough for kids and adults alike to be intrigued.
But not everything on the disc works this well, and unfortunately a good chunk of the middle sags with songs that fail to capture the imagination. The biggest stumble is by Canadian indie rock giants Broken Social Scene. Their lugubrious, unwieldy take on “Puff the Magic Dragon” turns the kids’ favorite into a funeral dirge that, like the band’s usual material, collapses under the weight of overproduction. Junior Boys’ “Max” is a nighttime lullaby doesn’t jive well with their 3 a.m. house beats. Kids will enjoy the saccharine sweet lyrics, and adults will enjoy the musicianship, but the two don’t quite gel together. Meanwhile the FemBots’ Tom Waits-inspired “Under the Bed” is just too out and out weird. It’s a swampy vamp cranked to the max that is more likely to scare kids than engage them, and is instantly forgettable. The Red House Painters’ Mark Kozelek has forgotten he’s even singing for kids, and his usually depressive “Leo & Luna” is completely out of place here. However, next to the fumbling, inept playing of similarly minded folkie Detective Kalita, Kozelek is positively cheery. With a seeming inability to play and sing at the same time, “Baby Brother” manages to up Kozelek in the sadness department while offering an array of fudged chords and awkward singing.
Writing songs for kids that can appeal to all ages is a difficult task. The songs that work best on See You on the Moon! Songs for Kids of All Ages, marry hooks and lyrics while avoiding the pitfalls of being cloying and irritating that plague most music aimed at kids. There is enough great stuff here that a careful mix of the best tracks will provide a fun and imaginative half hour for kids and adults alike, and enough promise that it will have me looking out for Volume 2, which is already in the works.