Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Album Review: Smile - Mr. Steve & Miss Katie

Smile is the new album from the very talented Mr. Steve & Miss Katie, aka Steve and Katie Piperno.  The album features eleven songs that are literally saturated with melody, and have a brightness and clarity of purpose second to none. The duo also write and produce all their songs, which is some achievement these days.  Interestingly it is the CD sleeve which sets the tone for what is in store, with the band, in Pied Piper fashion, leading a variety of exotic animals on a musical journey to an unknown destination.  It is a journey of imagination and intrigue in anticipation of the magical and musical treats that lie ahead.

The album kicks off with the movement song “I Love Trains", a song that is both catchy and great fun to sing along to. It would also be a useful asset for any teachers looking for a suitable movement song to use in the classroom.  You can almost visualize the children moving in time to the music as the rhythm punctuates a really captivating melody.  The track also features a variety of instrumentation, including a brass section, adding further vibrancy to the overall pop sound on display. 

Continuing on the theme of movement, “Everybody Get Movin’” is a real foot stomper as we hear the artist emphatically declare how he wants  ‘to get up early and see the big sun rise’. The sound is literally sweltering in optimism, with an intoxicating feel-good factor throughout.  It also has an interesting swing feel, with the sound of brass punctuating the vocal delivery very effectively. The harmonies are wonderful, and the tune is infectious.

“The Clean Up Song” is another teacher friendly track, which celebrates the fun involved in making a mess, as well as the process of cleaning up, which with the right attitude can be ‘twice as fun’.  We are then transported to the “Deep Blue Sea”, with a song that captures a somewhat Jamaican feel throughout.  Here Katie Piperno delivers her crystal clear vocal through lyrics that explore the sights that surround us on this fantastic voyage, giving the listener a more profoundly visual experience.

“If I Had A Farm” ponders a visit to the countryside, with a melancholy violin accompanying the vocal introduction.  There is space here for the children to interact, as they are encouraged to do a number of animal impersonations, in what could be described as “Old Macdonald” for the twenty-first century.  “All Around The World” has a more ambitious schedule, as we visit a host of interesting countries and are taught how to say hello in different languages.  The chorus is superb, and is a kind of all-inclusive sing along.

The title track, “Smile”, provides a gentle change of pace, with the use of a shuffle beat, a harmonica and a lazy vocal to give the impression that the day has just begun.  Again the song benefits from an uplifting chorus, and when Steve Piperno sings ‘it makes the world brighter when you smile’, you can’t help but agree.  “Hands Up In The Air” re-establishes the theme of movement, inviting the listener to participate in a variety of actions.  Whether it is stomping your feet, or doing a silly dance, the point is that when you move it can only make you feel better.

“It’s Snowing Now” provides a musical backdrop to the eagerly anticipated arrival of Christmas.  With a musical description of the beautiful impression snow makes on the landscape.  It also describes the special feelings and joy Christmas brings, from reunion with family to the arrival of Santa.  The “Goodnight Song” is surprisingly up-tempo, as the duo bid goodnight to the various items surrounding them.  The song incorporates a lively country feel, setting the listener up nicely for the final track on the album “Lullaby”.

Now I know that putting a lullaby at the end of a children’s album tends to be a bit of a cliché these days, but nonetheless, the song is beautifully sung and also benefits from the inclusion of strings and a hypnotic piano.  It is safe to say the song would be ideal to serenade a child off to sleep, although I might add, that if Brian Eno wrote a lullaby song for kids I would guess it might sound something like this.

On this form I expect to be hearing a lot more from Mr. Steve & Miss Katie.  The songs are simplistic enough to sound appealing, and yet sophisticated enough to sound interesting. A simple message, with a lively melody, delivered with some enthusiastic harmonies throughout appears to be the order of the day.  The songs are engaging and would suit a number of educational themes.  Furthermore, the lyrics leave the listener feeling more optimistic and energized as the songs literally make you smile when you hear them.  Which I guess is what the artists set out to do in the first place.

Mr. Steve & Miss Katie’s Smile – the time to be happy is now.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Album Review: I'm Not A Bully - Josh & Gab

Gab Bonesso is a nationally renowned comedian, performer and comedy writer. Josh Verbanets is an award winning songwriter, singer and musician. Together this dynamic duo have developed a unique sound for children of all ages, through the use of original songs which celebrate creativity and suggest alternatives to negative behaviour. Their new album I’m Not a Bully is an absolute gem fusing garage punk with pop sensibility and is available now on Fake Chapter (Music is Family) Records.

The opening track “Everybody Clap Hands” is a high-energy melodic pop song, with soaring melodies and a backing track that would make the Ramones proud.  The message explores the social challenges facing vulnerable children in unfamiliar situations, such as the playground or the school bus.  Ultimately, the sentiment is celebratory in tone, with the fear acknowledged and yet overcome in a union of togetherness and victory.

“Nine O Clock Behind The Jack Rabbit”, opens with a riff that reminded me a little of Television’s “Marquee Moon”.  Again the theme explored here is fear, but this time in anticipation of a fight in which the singer doesn’t want to be involved.  The song is hypnotic and melodic with uplifting melodies throughout.  Here the inner workings of the mind of a child are explored and in particular the vulnerability felt from the conflict set to occur at nine o’clock.  There is also an interesting contrast between the sprightly melody, and the darkness of the subject matter.  Again the problem is overcome, emphasising how the creative mind can assist in the elimination of such challenges.

“Door In The Floor” introduces a female voice, and is completely different in style with the somewhat jazzy vocals on display elaborating on the threat of rats roaming around the house.  This brief departure into American jazz is in complete contrast to the following track, “I’m Not a Bully” which opens with a guitar riff that would sit quite happily on a Led Zeppelin album.  Here the lyrics are no-nonsense and uncompromising as the singer chants the declarative statement ‘I’m not a bully’ into a melting microphone.

“I’m A Leader”, again provides a further shift in tone, as it is noticeably gentler in delivery.  The song encourages children to make the right choices, including telling the truth, and treating others like you would like to be treated.  The music has an interesting kind of jagged feel, before it really opens up at the end to provide an array of sounds that really bring home the point.  The song revels in a display of melody, which is both catchy and uplifting for the listener.

“Hurry Up And Get Well” is a gentler ballad with a stunning melody that I literally had swirling around my head all day.  Again the reciprocal vocal technique is used, along with a string arrangement on the chorus to add a fuller sound, providing further dynamics.  The overall strength of the song can be measured by its sweet simplicity, allowing the melody to soar and the clarity of the vocals to really hit the target.

This mini album is well worth a listen.  It is highly melodic, with interesting arrangements, and excellent musicianship.  The musical themes on offer are diverse, engaging and offer advice to young children on how to negotiate a variety of difficult situations.  This really is music with a message where some of life’s early challenges are tackled head on.  The music moves with the message, hard and uncompromising at times, sweet and soulful the next. This is a great album for playing in the car before dropping the kids off at school, enabling them to absorb the positive advice on display.  For me the ultimate success of the album is the way in which the songs deal with difficult subject matter in a fun and engaging way.

Josh and Gab’s I’m Not A Bully - music with a message that needs to be heard!

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Album Review: Let's Skidaddle - Brett Campbell

Brett Campbell is a singer-songwriter from Queensland, Australia, and is arguably one of the hardest working musicians around performing over three hundred shows a year.  His latest album Let’s Skidaddle is a real winner, featuring eleven original songs that are imaginative, melodic and interactive.  I was looking forward to hearing this album because, having seen Brett perform live, I was particularly interested to see if he could capture that raw energy in the studio – I was certainly not disappointed.

The opening track “Welcome To The Show” grabs the listener’s attention immediately.  The song features both a lively acoustic guitar and a melodic honky tonk piano.  It is a delightful sing along track, providing ample opportunities for the kids to join in on the chorus.  “What’s in My Lunch Box?” opens with bongos and continues this positive vibe with the artist describing the variety of goodies contained in his lunch box.  “Duck, Duck, Frog”, reminded me a little of the famous ditty “Pop Goes the Weasel” but on this occasion expertly delivered on the banjo.  “How Many Sleeps?” is more up-tempo with its use of a shuffle beat and some imaginative bass playing revealing a noticeable skiffle influence.

“Cats and Dogs Are My Favourite People” is a very interesting song title and pays homage to “The 59th Street Bridge Song”, adapted slightly to reminisce on the many benefits of pet ownership.  Continuing on the subject of interesting song titles, they don’t get much more bizarre than “Triantiwontigongolope”, a melodic tribute to the poetry of C.J. Dennis, with a staccato rhythm and some interesting kazoo playing throughout.  “Can You?” features a clean electric guitar, and some subtle bass playing which leaves the required space for the inclusion of a Hammond organ.  This is a superb action song, which I’m sure would be great live or in the classroom.

“Crocodile In The Washing Pile” has a great up-tempo drum pattern; with captivating lyrics used to describe the visit you might expect from a number of animals when you live in a zoo.  Shades of Bob Dylan are on display here with the harmonica taking centre stage.  “Max the Acrobat”, eloquently describes a circus bat, and its variety of tricks. A sparse ukulele introduces the song, along with some solid bass playing and a hypnotic tambourine.  “Chloe’s Fright” is both surreal and ambitious, as it explores a child’s night-time fears.  The vocals here are really quite haunting as they scrutinise the hidden depths of a child’s imagination, from ‘flying platypuses with horns on their wings’ to ‘monsters with sharp shiny teeth’.

Last but certainly not least comes “Dirty Dog Ditty”, which introduces an expertly played didgeridoo courtesy of the very talented Lucas Proudfoot.  The song provides a new departure in style, boasting a  somewhat funkier feel.  It is also great to dance to, with the inclusion of some clever percussion underpinning a hypnotic reciprocal vocal.  This song really is Brett Campbell at his best, in both musical style and delivery.
Brett Campbell is an artist who writes songs about the every day experiences of children, and he does so in a simplistic, measured and imaginative way.  This album may not contain the most lavish of productions, but it more than makes up for it with the strength of the content on display.  The songs are melodic, tell a story and are easy to dance to. Furthermore, many of the songs would be more than suitable for use in the classroom, or at children’s parties.  

Brett Campbell - great live, even better in the studio!

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Album Review: Good Morning Kids - Woody's World

Woody Clark is a singer songwriter and schoolteacher from Warburton in Victoria. His debut album Good Morning Kids is quite superb, featuring seventeen cleverly crafted songs about family, friendship, and the beauty of nature. The cover provides a glimmer of the content on offer, with artwork reminiscent of Roger Dean in his heyday. Here the listener is seemingly whisked down memory lane, in a nostalgic tribute to a variety of musical styles including country, blues, jazz and rock, providing something for everyone.  The album is delivered with the natural gift of a born storyteller, who is assisted throughout by some unique contributions from family and friends.

The opening track “Good Morning” is a delightful celebration of the natural environment, as the artist gives thanks for the simple everyday things we sometimes take for granted, from ‘the fish in the rivers to the clouds in the sky’. The song is built around acoustic guitar and piano, and assisted by a strings arrangement, which really lifts the chorus. The song reminded me a little of “Morning Has Broken” by Cat Stevens in sentiment if not in melody. “Catch the Leaves” is another celebration of nature, but this time through providing a musical narrative to the changing of the seasons, accompanied by piano and cello, delivered with the beautiful serenity of a child’s voice.

We are also invited on this musical adventure to meet some of the animals that explore such beautiful landscape. The song “Ralph” pays tribute to the much-maligned snake. This particular snake lives under Woody’s house, and despite the subject matter, the song is quite upbeat, with the inclusion of harmonica and acoustic guitar giving the song a bit of a Dylan vibe. “Charlie and Belinda Mouse” is equally energetic featuring a prominent ukulele and a trumpet that (dare I say) reminded me a bit of the Wiggles. “Hercules the Alley Cat” pays homage to Woody’s adopted cat, and was in fact written by his Dad, proving that this album really is a family affair. The inclusion of a saxophone gives the song a nice jazzy feel, with the additional children’s backing vocals adding further impact.

Clearly the inclusion of family and friends also adds a certain charm to the CD, conjuring up images of simpler times, when families might sing around the piano before the intrusion of technology.  “Friends” takes us on a quick detour into blues territory, assisted by some quite charming children’s backing vocals. The song itself is built around the acoustic guitar, although there is a clever introduction of instruments as the song progresses, with the inclusion of drums adding power, keyboards adding melody, and the use of brass giving the song a more vibrant feel. The music sounds both confident and spontaneous creating the impression that the artist is both performing and improvising and quite comfortable doing so.

“Say You Do” is both written and performed by children, the inclusion of which provides further variety to the overall sound of the album.  “Storm” reflects on a child’s experience of a thunderstorm, and the fear and challenges this creates. The female lead vocal used here is chillingly beautiful, describing the arrival of a storm with some trepidation. Here nature takes on an intrusive twist, with the song providing a practical guide as to how to combat such storms. With a melancholy piano accompanying the sound of a storm the song reminded me for a moment of Supertramp at their best.  “Sing!” although written by Woody, is another song performed by young children. The song is built around a hypnotic bass line, some dramatic backing vocals, and lyrics, which emphasise the importance of singing as a source of happiness and restoration. 

As discussed earlier, a major strength of the artist is that he is very much a storyteller at heart. In fact, the song “Ralph” begins with Woody declaring ‘here’s a story about Ralph,’ before we are reminded of the way in which we tend to care for animals, and yet forget about the poor old snake. “Whacko Bluey” with its subtle references to Ned Kelly, sounds like a song to sing around the campfire, with its nostalgic references to the past. This song both introduces characters and tells a story, and is essentially an Australian bush ballad with a great melody. “Going to the Show” further demonstrates this story telling ability, with an intro somewhat reminiscent of “Magical Mystery Tour” by the Beatles. We are now in nursery rhyme territory, with shades of Paul McCartney and even George Formby on display.

“Mumma’s Having a Baby” describes the eagerly anticipated, and imminent arrival of a new baby. The enthusiastic interjections of the children during the song could be regarded as musically intrusive, but for me provide the track with a genuine sense of authenticity.  Once again the song benefits from some lively violin and intricate guitar playing, bobbing along in good old-fashioned foot stomping tradition. “One Man Band” describes the challenges facing musicians as to whether to play solo or with a band. Here the gradual introduction of a variety of instruments is used to welcome the various members of the band. Again there is a feeling of spontaneity, as the track creates the impression that the musicians are literally turning up and improvising as the song is being recorded.

Woody is no doubt astute enough to realise that it is probably unwise to release a children’s album without an action song, and the song “Give Me a Clap” no doubt fills the gap. This is an action song that could prove useful for early childhood teachers looking for something different to use in the classroom. I’m sure it would also sound great live, and as I was listening to the song, I could almost imagine a Play School presenter performing it. “I’m Flying”, is another track which could be useful for teachers, as flight is a popular theme in primary schools. Furthermore it’s not difficult to imagine children moving around the music room with their hands outstretched to these lyrics. It also benefits from a beautiful melody, which celebrates the sensation of freedom, something all artists can no doubt relate to. The middle eight uses a clever shuffle beat, and the spacey atmospheric vocal leaves the listener feeling breathless and enchanted as the images on offer hit the mark.  The song also reveals further diversity here, with a sound somewhat reminiscent of nineties Britpop - I’m sure even Noel Gallagher would be impressed.

Whilst we are on the subject of great songwriters, the best track on the album for me is “Thing Like That", an absolute classic delivered with an attitude and spirit worthy of the Pogues. The song utilises both a lively violin and solid double bass for good measure. It is also melodic, enthusiastically delivered and really quite captivating, with lyrics describing all the crazy things that may occur throughout the day, from requests to have a shower with your clothes on, to the sight of flying emus. If you are ever feeling down in the dumps and need cheering up, this is the song to play, it’s almost impossible to not feel good after hearing it. The song also benefits from a great video that you really should check out at your earliest opportunity.

Well if music is supposed to make you feel good, this album pushes all the right buttons. In Woody’s World the listener is taken on a musical adventure, delivered through some delightful songs of genuine authenticity and real emotion.  The artist is very much a storyteller at heart, and despite sharing a Christian name with one of the most famous folk singers of all time; there is an earnest originality about the music.  His ability to tell a story and describe the setting with such veracity enables the listener to feel a real sense of connection. This musical adventure unfolds like a fairy tale, where everybody is invited, and can equally contribute towards this utopian world, that if it did exist I for one would love to live there.

Watch this space for more great things to come from Woody's World!

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Gig Review: Circular Rhythm at Mt Ommaney Library, Brisbane

Circular Rhythm is the brainchild of Lucas Proudfoot a children’s entertainer and educator, specialising in interactive musical performances for children. These performances also incorporate musical demonstrations, and a historical background to a variety of instruments including the didgeridoo. He has a natural rapport with his audience, and the ability to create a musical workshop, which is great fun. Whether this is by incorporating musical games, or through his relentless wit, the show provides maximum entertainment for the audience.

Welcome to the Lucas Proudfoot show!

After paying his respects to the traditional owners of the land, Lucas begins with a blistering rhythmic guitar and a stomp box to get us under way. The children respond with great enthusiasm clapping along and nodding their heads to the rhythm. What is soon apparent is that Lucas is pretty much a stand up comedian in all but name. His ability to make the children (and the parents) laugh is impressive. This is achieved largely through a spontaneous wit, which takes full advantage of the unpredictability of children. Evidence of this is witnessed through the increasing numbers in the room, with punters eagerly filing in to discover what all the hilarity is about.

Throughout the show, Lucas performs on a variety of instruments with great dexterity. From the guitar to the stomp box to the didgeridoo, he moves effortlessly between each instrument providing a musical narrative to an appreciative crowd. He also readily invites children on to the stage to take part, distributing a variety of instruments, which the children seize with relish. His understanding of the importance of providing children with hands on experience of engaging with instruments is quite inspiring. Furthermore, an ability to remember every child’s name is another plus, along with his natural rapport with the kids revealing an impressive skill at working an audience.

Lucas, like an experienced conductor, is also able to direct this spontaneous children’s orchestra encouraging them to change the pace of the rhythm of the music for additional effect. This type of interactive demonstration through the intuitive guidance of children is really quite remarkable. Furthermore, his unique ability to demonstrate the type of circular breathing necessary to play the didgeridoo is fascinating to watch, as is his description of the way in which the diaphragm pumps the required air.

There is also an interesting historical aspect to the show, with lucid descriptions of the origins of many of the instruments on display.  Lucas illustrates how the didgeridoo was probably the world’s oldest instrument, made from live eucalyptus trees as a result of termites hollowing out the bark. The unique purpose of the boomerang is also explained, and in particular the way in which it is used for hunting, to scatter birds in order that they can be caught in nets. Clearly there’s a lot going on here, and despite the educational aspect of the show, still plenty of time left for some fun musical games, which the children enjoy immensely.

Lucas Proudfoot is an accomplished musician, teacher and entertainer. His shows are informative, imaginative and great fun. He has an easy rapport with the children, and a spontaneous wit. Perhaps this ability stems from his work ethic, as I’m reliably informed that he performs around forty shows a month - a number that makes me tired to even think about. The performance is almost an hour long, providing excellent value for money.  We finish with the artist asking the audience ‘hands up who had a good time today?’ Everyone put their hands up including the parents. Clearly a good time was had by all.  

Hats off to Lucas Proudfoot - children's entertainer extraordinaire!

Monday, 6 April 2015

Video Review: Prawn Crackers by Electric Lunchbox

Who would have thought Chinese food could provide the theme for a successful kids' song?  It has though in the form of “Prawn Crackers” by the highly innovative band Electric Lunchbox.  In fact the song was so successful that it nabbed a top ten spot in the 2011 Australian Songwriting Contest – no mean feat.  The song itself is taken from the band’s self titled debut album, featuring an eclectic mix of influences including fifties Rockabilly and Motown.

“Prawn Crackers” is not only a good song it is also a remarkably innovative video.  It begins with some percussive drumming accompanied by crunchy power chords to match the mood.  This is followed by a marching sequence, where a variety of food products seemingly float across the screen.

There is also no shortage of special effects used on the video.   Whether the band is swinging on noodles, marching on rice or being attacked by spring rolls, there is clearly a lot going on.  The facial gestures of lead vocalist Jayde Bond captures the almost child like longing for her favourite dish, so that when she says ‘yes please’ she looks like she really means it.  In fact the hand gestures and movements of key members Jayde and Steve, manage to replicate childish enthusiasm very effectively.

The inclusion of some delightful children’s backing vocals is another welcome addition to both song and video.  The way in which children pop up throughout the video, whether they are marching, spinning around the screen or dancing on prawn crackers flying through the air (yes this really happens), is very effective.  At around two minutes in length clearly a lot has been crammed into this video, and there is literally never a dull moment.

The video is highly entertaining and a must watch by a superb Australian kids’ band, who have played throughout Australia to great reviews.  I saw them perform at the Rhymes Kids Music Festival and they are a pretty formidable live unit.  They have also released a follow up album entitled Hey which I’m sure, judging by their earlier material, is well worth checking out.

Time to wake up to Electric Lunchbox!

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Gig Review: Jelly Kids at Suncorp Piazza, Brisbane

What did you do on Australia Day? Well here in Brisbane, I was fortunate enough to be treated to some great music at Suncorp Piazza,on a sweltering summer’s day, courtesy of Brisbane’s very own Jelly Kids. The band hit the stage at 11 o’clock to an audience of around three hundred people. Fortunately the sound engineer really knew his stuff, and managed to get a great sound, rip-roaring loud and ready to go.

The band, looking sharp in their co-ordinated outfits, began their set with the lively opener “Eating Jelly with Your Fingers". Food, as you can imagine, is a key component of the lyrics, with many references to food throughout the set. Here a number of different approaches to eating are described, accompanied by some melodic keyboards and a clever reciprocal vocal technique. The song has a noticeable jazz influence, further cemented by an electrifying guitar that moved up and down the fretboard like snakes on a hot tin ladder!

“Funky Red” reminded me a little of The Jackson 5, with its seventies vibe and uplifting rhythm which really got the crowd going. Prizes were handed out to the most deserving dancers as the crowd began to increase in number. Children generally love to play musical statues, so the introduction of a freeze dance was another welcome addition to the performance. This set the show up nicely for “Dance Like an Emu”, another action song, where the children were encouraged to impersonate a variety of different animals. Incidentally the lead vocal on this song was performed by the keyboard player, revealing a further depth of vocal talent.

The kids were all now on their feet, as the band raised the tempo with the slightly country influenced “Fruit Salad”, as the delights of eating fruit were described to emphasise the importance of healthy eating. The audience were then encouraged to do an impromptu Mexican wave, as the sounds of the ocean introduced the next song “Beach Reggae” an appropriate song in the heat, with lyrics including sun safety advice for the kids. As education was now on the menu, “Alphabet Groove” was a well timed addition to the set from this jazz inspired eight legged groove machine. Next up the audience were treated to a game of Name That Tune, with familiar songs such as “Waltzing Matilda” tossed into the air, in an attempt to test the musical memory of the audience.

Despite a hefty half hour of performing in soaring temperatures, there was still plenty of bounce left in the set, as the band crashed through the remaining songs at a hectic pace. “Chocolate Now’”, a song apparently about a child’s request for chocolate at the dinner table was well received. Here bananas, spaghetti and pizza are all rejected in favour of chocolate, which left me wondering if it was sung from personal experience. We were then treated to a jazz influenced version of “The Hokey Pokey” which had everyone up and moving. The set finished as it began with another rendition of “Eating Jelly With Your Fingers” with the audience invited down the front for one last dance.

Jelly Kids really know how to work an audience, their set is varied in pace, and is highly interactive incorporating fun games and activities throughout. A major strength of this band is they recognise, when you perform for families, it is not enough to just stand there and play your instruments. The audience needs to feel involved and there needs to be diversity and activities that engage the kids, which is exactly what Jelly Kids do.

I am guessing that there must be at least one teacher in this band, as at times the show panned out like a fun music lesson. Another plus, is the majority of the set is made up of original songs, which is a refreshing change from the usual array of covers on offer. In short they are a highly entertaining outfit and a delight to watch. Having being suitably inspired, I left the concert with some of their songs still playing in my head, and a renewed interest in sampling some of the culinary delights that were on offer all around me. I couldn’t find any jelly and ice cream, so the veggie burger just had to do.

Look out for Jelly Kids coming your way.