Monster babies, tigers in underwear drawers, farts that smell like the zoo...this is a kid's album, right?
It’s not a stretch for Kimya Dawson to record an album of music for children. She’s already recorded songs with children singing along with her, and performed onstage with children singing back-up. She used to routinely perform wearing a skunk costume, the stage filled with baby dolls in strollers. She’s sung serious songs from the perspective of a lonely, rejected, or abused child. And she’s routinely sung about bodily functions using words a kindergartener might.
It’s that last habit that at first seems most dominant on Alphabutt. There’s eventually some strains of seriousness, but towards the beginning Alphabutt is seriously silly, as any children’s album worth its salt should be.
I haven’t checked where the side-break is on the LP version of Alphabutt, but I’m considering the first seven songs to be Side A. That’s because those songs are an absolute ball: sing-songy short little songs that are cute, fun, and sound like kids would love them. They’re stupid little songs like you might make up on a whim, to amuse somebody. They seem critic-proof in that way. They’re meant for kids, meant to be dumb fun, not meant to be picked apart.
To wit, the first song is about monster babies destroying everything in sight. The second, the title track, is an alphabet song where many of the letters refer to farts of some kind: “And Z is for farts that smell like the zoo”. “Bobby-O” is irrestible, a tale of, of course, Bobby-O, the “skinny younger brother of Fabio”. There are songs about bears, about the tigers that live in your underwear drawer, about a special little doggie.
The musical atmosphere is like a bring-your-own-instrument party, kids welcome. There’s lots of banging on homemade-drums and playing toy xylophones. Kids sing along with Dawson, off-key more often than not. It’s an “amateurish”-sounding album, and that’s how it should be. What does being a kid have to do with professionalism?
The album’s off-the-cuff, home-made quality is fitting not only for Dawson’s history of following her own path, but for the relation the album has to her actual life. Dawson has a two-year-old daughter, Panda, who’s clearly part of the inspiration for Alphabutt, and is a major presence here, whether her actual voice is present or not (though I imagine it probably is). Of the first seven songs, the one that is explicitly from a parent’s perspective is also one of the album’s best: “Smoothie”. It’s about a pregnant mother, worried that there’s trouble when she can’t feel her baby moving, asking the father to make her a smoothie, to get the baby rolling around. I’m boring myself by describing it, though, as the song itself is more a rollicking sing-along folk tune, light on its feet, but sweet for its embodiment of parental caring.
The shift to an adult perspective is more serious on the eighth track, “Happy Home (Keep on Writing)”, a more ‘educational’ sort of life-advice song. In style more similar to Dawson’s previous albums, it’s a break from the fun and disrupts the tone of the album a bit. The same shift happens for the final track, “Sunbeams and Some Beans”, a song-tale about farming and solutions to world hunger that’s sincere but preachy in the context of this album. “We’re All Animals” strives for some middle ground between message (no need to shave your body hair because humans are animals too) and fun, and achieves it, though the cartoon-character, fake-farmer voice that intrudes is odd, like a refuge from Barney.
Maybe kids need these adult-perspective, comparatively more serious songs as a break from the goofiness, but I like Alphabutt most when it’s straight-up silly. What I’m calling Side B has some of that too. “Wiggle My Tooth”, written by 8-year-old McAlister Shea, is great fun, the sort-of punk-rock chant that only a real kid could come up with. But songs like “I Love You Sweet Baby” and “Little Panda Bear” shift us back towards the adults again. They’re both direct parent-to-child love songs. The first has Dawson and Angelo Spencer, Panda’s mom and dad, professing their love in song. It’s a touching moment, perhaps, but also one where it’s easy to flash-forward into the future and imagine it as similar to those baby pictures parents use to embarrass their teenage children. “Mom, put that away!”
Alphabutt is an album for kids, sure, but it’s just as much an album about first-time parents. The main consistent plot line across the songs has the parents watching as Panda sleeps, eats, pees, or poos. Then again, what else do babies do?