Music written and performed for children is optimistic by nature. Some recording artists try to shine a light on societal warts when making family-friendly content but never dwell on the negative. At this stage in the 21st century, guys like Aaron Nigel Smith and Andy Furgeson, aka Red Yarn, certainly have their work cut out for them when addressing hard truths.
With a turbulent political landscape, a voting populace that still resists cultural diversity, and a deadly pandemic that has bred an unsettling amount of misinformation, making socially aware music for a younger audience in America might be an uphill climb. But the two Portland musicians navigate that minefield so well on Smith & Yarn that it might as well be their calling. The presser says that the album “represents a long, organic collaborative process that pushed both artists outside of their comfort zones, yielding songs and sounds that neither would have created alone”. Outside of their comfort zones? They certainly fooled me.
That sentence refers to the musical gumbo that Smith and Yard cook up, mixing banjo with reggae, country with hip-hop, and whatever else they felt like throwing in at the time. There’s even a song about the process named “Mix It Up”. After walking the listener through the steps of making cake batter, they then apply the same attitude toward music: “When you’re writing a song / And you make it into music / You know there’s nothing wrong / With a little bit of fusion.” Yeah, “music” and “fusion” don’t exactly rhyme, but you’ll forgive them because your toe is already tapping hard to the slow funk. “Put in some blue notes / Borrow 20 from country / Make it a little bit folk / And a little bit funky / Stir in a reggae rhythm / Keep the bass thumping / Mix it all together / And get everyone jumping.” If baking can be an allegory for music, then why can’t music be an allegory for life? Mixing things that don’t usually belong together has created many happy accidents in kitchens worldwide, and a recording studio should be no different. If the young listener in your life can’t easily identify the genre of “Mix It Up”, that was probably half the idea all along.
The following track, “Never Be Alone”, touches lightly on general anxieties but reminds us that it’s perfectly fine to seek help when one is overwhelmed. When guest vocalist Rissi Palmer admits that “sometimes the world gets me feeling scared inside”, it’s followed up with a promise that no one has to tough through anything alone. Next up is “Truth”, featuring Kelli Welli, Mo Phillips, rapper SaulPaul, and the banjo and mandolin team of Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxner. “Good old truth / A friend to all / I wanna pick up / Whenever you call,” goes the peppy chorus full of bluegrass plucking and a shifting rhythm section. “Ain’t complicated / Though some may try / To spin the truth / Out of a lie,” begins the second verse, reminding young minds that the simplest explanation is often correct.
Smith & Yarn is stuffed with cameos from the “kindie” scene like Father Goose, Karen Kalafatas, Jake Blount, Benjamin Hunter, Brian Farrow, Jubba White, Dale Haslam, Dean Jones, and Paul Brainard, with their credits stretching anywhere from pedal steel to trombone. Smith, an active producer with his own studio, collected many of these performances remotely out of necessity. “Swing Your Partner”, a song featuring Kalafatas on vocals, anticipates post-pandemic times and the promise of physical contact. “Long time since we’ve had a chance / I can’t wait to high-five and hug my friends again / One thing I miss more every day / Is moving to the music with friends or family / When it’s safe to open up again / I’d gather the community and let the songs begin.” While Smith and Yarn may pretend to be giving voice to the young, they are just as likely singing about themselves, given how even a family-friendly music scene thrives on a sense of community.
Father Goose’s vocals on the proactive “Make Some Change” pits a hip-hop sprechstimme against folk banjo in front of a drumbeat that blurs somewhere between moderate rock and upbeat reggae. Call it what you want, but a term like “disjointed” won’t stick. Smith and Yarn are aware that they are playing with an odd mix of sounds, but it all comes out too easy-sounding to be either pretentious or a bumbling accident.
Smith & Yarn is a short album – not even half an hour – but brevity always favors children’s music. Releases from acts like Hullabaloo rarely go much longer than half an hour. No matter how brief, the content needs to pass both child and parent tests to be a successful family album. Any parent even remotely interested in American roots music will be delighted by Smith & Yarn. And if any of the children can stomach the sight of watching their parents dance, they too will enjoy it. Smith & Yarn is just too bright and happy to go down any other way.