Thursday, 10 November 2016

Album Review: Wildlife - Zucchini Clan

Attention all you teachers, parents and environmental warriors out there, you really have to check out the zany Celtic duo Zucchini Clan at your earliest opportunity. Currently one of the most exciting kids bands around, they literally look and sound like they are from another planet. Their music is gentle and melodic and yet still packs a punch. They deliver compelling messages, but with a lightness of touch that is both imaginative and great fun. Their debut album Wildlife is superb, containing ten memorable songs, with instantly hummable memories, potent lyrics and skilful musicianship. There is a real revolution going on here, that begins and ends with The Zucchini Clan. Miss them at your peril, because they are seriously seeking out new directions, and boldly going where no band has gone before.

The opening song “Seasons” is sparse and hypnotic, and proceeds like a bizarre nursery rhyme, propelled by a powerful drumbeat. The sparsity of the verse creates the necessary space to launch a truly explosive chorus, which expands the melody very effectively. The lyrics explore how ‘seasons wait for no one, transporting us on an environmental journey, combining infectious melody with crystal clear vocals. The song initially celebrates the arrival of spring, and all the wonders that lie in store as  ‘the sun wakes up from its winter sleep’.  The lyrics also encourage healthy eating reminding the listener that junk food ‘makes you sick’, as we further embark on this musical journey where we are encouraged to ‘plant trees’ and go organic.

“Little Black Fly” is quite psychedelic and reminded me a little of Syd Barrett at his best. Once again there is a simple rhythm pattern, creating the space for the gradual introduction of instruments as the song progresses. The song has a great tune, and finishes with a rip-roaring guitar solo, which really takes the listener by surprise. You should also check out the video, which is equally memorable.  Up next the title track “Wildlife”, which is funkier, atmospheric and again flirts with a psychedelic feel, although this time with more of a nineties Brit Pop vibe. The electric guitar outburst could have been credited to Jimi Hendrix, although the main strength of the song is the way that it describes a selection of Australian animals to celebrate the beauty and diversity of Australian wildlife.

“Tooth Faery, is slower in tempo, and with a bit of a stretch could almost be described as ‘easy listening’. Here a female voice recaptures the nursery rhyme style featured earlier. Young children often struggle with the painful reality of wobbly teeth, and would no doubt be able to relate to this song. The lyrics focus on the problems children with loose teeth may experience, particularly during lunch break, and the sudden realisation that they  ‘can’t eat an apple yet’. The tooth fairy makes a cameo appearance, with lyrics that celebrate how the child has managed to ‘get coins from the tooth fairy.’  The drum pattern is imaginative, and the array of musicality on display throughout the song gives it an extra sparkle.  The reciprocal vocal at the end is also very effective taking the song out with shades of both blues and jazz competing for space.

“Happy Puppy” harnesses a somewhat layered orchestral vocal style in true sixties fashion, with shades of the Byrds or even Jefferson Airplane on display. The song is quite anthemic and features lyrics, which elaborate on a host of animals and their daily antics. The song also features a variety of instruments including what sounds like an accordion, effectively underpinned by a dynamic rhythm section. Some of the lyrics are rather eccentric, as we are informed that a ‘goose got loose on the fermenting juice.’   The somewhat melancholy backing vocals add an additional richness of texture to the track, which is hauntingly melodic and highly experimental.

Surely there can’t be another song in the world with the title “Crumbs From The Kitchen Floor”, and if there is I want to know about it.  Here, what sound like a banjo, and a variety of percussion instruments soon make way for a Celtic style vocal chant demanding ‘give me more more more crumbs from the kitchen floor.’ This is another highly melodic track, but with a more evocative style of delivery, and a musical depth that reminded me a little of Steeleye Span.

 “Black Fella/White Fella” has a tougher more uncompromising feel, and is a song, which unsurprisingly celebrates difference, emphasising the importance of being judged on individual merit. The song is much more up-tempo, with a sound brimming with pop sensibility. The song exudes total attitude with potent lyrics that hit the point as accurately as the drummer hits the snare drum.  This is a real call to arms climatically building to the point where the lead vocals emphatically declare ‘stand up and be counted.’

“Who are you?” is slower, and again reverts to the nursery rhyme style featured on some of the earlier tracks. This time we have a quite relaxed vocal delivery with a tonality reminiscent of Peter Gabriel.  In addition, there is a somewhat refined keyboard, enhanced by some rather sumptuous backing vocals. I’m sure the kids would love this song, as it is both clever and imaginative, and at times the music reminded me a little of the Pixies around their “Bossanova” era. Peter Gabriel meets The Pixies, now there’s an interesting combination!

“Log Trux” is a song that effectively berates deforestation, counting the carnage as a number of trees are decimated. The song is quite intense, and explores the full extent to which this destruction goes on ‘all day up and down the road.’  The vocal harmony is morbidly effective, with the band aversely joining in as they count the logs with dismay. This song packs a punch is hard hitting and delivers a stern message that we simply must ‘save the forest and let it grow’ The middle eight takes the pace down a notch as we are given time to reflect on how long these trees have actually been around. The musical diversion is also interesting, as is the electric guitar, which complements the vocal delivery. Here, the song flirts with the blues, drifting at times almost into Doors territory, or perhaps even Pink Floyd during their Animals phase.

“Spirit Princess” begins with a gentle piano and a lightness of touch, creating the space for the beautiful serenity of the lead vocal. What sounds like a mandolin resonates in the background, providing the perfect feel for the beauty and serenity of this Celtic lullaby to really shine.  The haunting majesty of the track is a great way to finish an album, leaving the listener in a kind of dream like state, contemplating life as the melody glides away.

This album has it all, wonderful musicianship, beautiful vocals, and songs which bridge the gap between musical depth and instant accessibility. The bands lyrical strength enables them to stand up as poets in their own right, through telling stories, which pan out like miniature folk tales.  Whether it is through their unique image or the originality of the music, you will never have seen or heard anything quite like this before. Perhaps their greatest appeal is they have created a new music; mixing psychedelic pop with nursery rhymes to deliver a potent message that is accessible to both adults and children.  I have heard that there's a new album in the pipeline, and if there is I look forward to hearing it.

Zucchini Clan – New Music for a new generation.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Album Review: Pevan & Sarah

Pevan & Sarah are a musical duo from Melbourne, Australia.  Their debut album is an interesting mix of musical genres, including, jazz, blues, pop, rock, and even reggae.  Apart from its musical merits, the album also provides teachers with a number of useful educational themes to incorporate in the classroom.  Lead vocalist Sarah has used her experience as a teacher to create a musical soundtrack that deals with the numerous challenges teachers face every day.  The main themes include friendship, adventure, acceptance, hygiene, cooperation and exercise.  So let’s put on our dancing shoes and explore the content in more detail, beginning with the theme of friendship.

The lyrics to the songFriend,” highlight the importance of inclusivity, the complexities involved in negotiating friendships, and further advice on how to be a good friend, such as using ‘friendly words’.  The music is funky and easy to dance to, with a dynamic guitar, competing for space with some interesting sound effects.  The chorus unfolds like a musical spelling test, with each letter of the word F-R-I-E-N-D chanted in hypnotic rhythm.  The lyrics also really hit the target as we are advised that ‘if we stick together good friends we could be’.

There is also plenty of opportunity for adventure on the CD, as the listener is catapulted to a number of exciting destinations along the way.  Our first stop is a “Space Ride”, where keyboard pads combine with slap bass to propel the listener into orbit in true eighties fashion.  “At the Beach” takes us into blues territory as we are reminded to ‘slip slop slap’ on our way.  The song begins with an extended drum pattern, before a lyrical account of our beach necessities blends with backing vocals somewhat reminiscent of the Supremes.  Our trip to “The Circus” also has its roots steeped in the blues, with some heavy keyboards underpinning a description of ‘all the things I see at the circus’.

Acceptance is another key theme on the CD, and is tackled with considerable expertise on the track “Get What You Get”.  The lyrics emphasise the importance of sharing, with the music exuding a laid-back rumba feel, capturing the mood of the song superbly.  Here we are firmly informed that ‘you get what you get and you don’t get upset’, and this ability to fit such complex ideas into an instantly hummable chorus is very impressive.  “We’re All The Same”, continues the theme of acceptance, with lyrics explaining how we may all look different, but inside we’re all the same.  The song begins with a clever shuffle beat creating a nice country feel, and finishes in true seventies fashion with the bass line doubling the guitar riff.

‘The Tidy Up Song”, with its emphasis on cooperation, explores another key educational theme on the album.  The song has a noticeable jazz influence with the inclusion of double bass providing additional impact.  This song is invaluable if you are a teacher attempting to encourage jaded kids to tidy up.  The vocals provide further encouragement from Pevan & Sarah themselves, who can be heard leaping and yelling in the background urging the children to join. The lyrics demand that we ‘put things back where they belong’ and also advise us to ‘work together and it won’t take long’.  We even have room for a countdown at the end, a teaching technique that is sure to get the kids moving.  “Stop Look And Listen” brings us into classic rock territory, with the inclusion of a surprisingly heavy guitar.  The chorus explores the tipping point for teachers where they are advised on how to stop the class when it gets out of control.  The music reminded me a little of “We Love To Boogie” by T. Rex, now there’s a blast from the past.

“Hands” focuses on the importance of good hygiene; which serves as pretty useful advice to prep students who are liable to get their hands dirty. The song is also interactive and great fun, encouraging the children to use their hands in a variety of fun activities including clapping, pointing and high fives. The music has a noticeable reggae feel, and bobs along with a stabbing keyboard, and a deep bass line which interestingly follows the melody on the chorus. I imagine that if Bob Marley or Peter Tosh wrote a song for kids it would probably sound something like this.

“Keep It Moving” explores the importance of exercise through lyrics, which express the need to keep your body moving.  The staccato drum pattern dominates the song, which unfolds like a kind of military manoeuvre. “The Freeze” continues the theme of movement, with music designed to accompany the lively game of musical statues.  The music is engaging, and the space between the tracks provides the necessary dynamics for this hugely popular musical game. The song also adds an interesting seventies flavor to the proceedings with shades of the Jackson 5 on display.

This CD serves as a musical guidebook on how to motivate, mollify and instruct young children. The lyrics are informative and the music is engaging.  I’m sure the album would appeal to both teachers and parents keen to motivate their children when they find themselves ‘bored with nothing to do’. The production of the album is first rate, with a real clarity of sound, ensuring you can always hear the lyrics.  Furthermore, many of the tracks feature enthusiastic vocal outbursts in the background from both band and kids, giving the album a real party feel. Although the major influence appears to be eighties electronic pop, the album integrates a number of different musical styles, and is produced and performed superbly by Pevan & Sarah.

Pevan & Sarah – something for everyone.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Album Review: For The Kids - Fire Dog

Fire Dog are a three-piece band from St Louis, USA, who describe themselves as a ‘pop rock harmony explosion,’ and on hearing their album, I couldn’t have put it better myself. Although the band generally plays to adult audiences, they have released their new album For The Kids after numerous requests to do so from their fans.  The result is a superb album containing seven songs that are original, upbeat, engaging and delivered with fine musicianship throughout.  The album also contains an array of interesting and diverse subject matter ranging from eventful birthdays, to historical characters, to conservation and beyond. 

The album kicks off with the lively “Everybody Has A Birthday”.  Here a grungy guitar sets the overall tone of the track, providing a soundtrack to the various rituals of birthday parties, with a particular emphasis on food.  We are reminded not to forget the ice cream during this festival of fun, which is clearly a birthday party that ‘rocks’.  The guitar solo is pure grunge, intense and to the point, with children’s backing vocals adding a shade of charm to the proceedings.  The bass improvises with some expertise towards the end, and we are also treated to a lively drum solo unusually early in the proceedings.  Clearly the band is quite at ease playing live, and does so with impressive verve and spontaneity. 

“You Don’t Know My Mama” has a gentler feel; it is slightly funky, melodic and engaging in a melancholy type of way.  We are informed that Mama who is clearly the hero of the hour ‘is sweeter than a sweet potato’. The addition of a piano adds further texture to the overall sound.  The song also includes a spoken tribute to Mama, which begins like Elvis before metamorphosing into an engaging rap.  Again the bass is imaginative and experimental and deviates from the script throughout.  I’m sure no major record company executive would have approved such an ambitious arrangement, and the song is all the better for it.

“I Love Myself,” is delivered with a grungy laid-back guitar, accompanied by lyrics that illustrate the multiple reasons to feel good about yourself.  These include ‘being talented, lucky and cool’.  This is a great message for young people, expertly assisted by some spirited kids’ backing vocals providing additional enthusiasm to the track.  To add further chaos to the proceedings, the song finishes with a guitar solo that reminded me of something Slash might have attempted back in the nineties.  Those were the days my friends.

“Hellbender” is the single taken from the album and is a tribute to Missouri’s Hellbender the largest salamander in North America and a native amphibian to Missouri.  The track also features a voice over by renowned Canadian folk icon and activist Bruce Cockburn.  The song itself reminded me a bit of the Doors, with shades of Blondie thrown in for good measure.  The middle eight features a spoken voice, which is delivered in the style of a radio broadcast.  The lyrics describe the threats to this endangered species, with authentic background noise leaving the impression that the recipient is actually tuning in to listen.

“Bessie Coleman” provides a tribute to the first female pilot of African American descent, exploring her life, how famous she became and all the resultant media attention.  The song itself powers along in uncompromising fashion with a no-nonsense message musically elaborating on the prejudice of the age.  However the chorus is uplifting, optimistic even, perhaps implying how Bessie overcame the many challenges of life, and all these ‘obstacles never giving up her dream.’  Despite the grungy garage vibe, the song is catchy, kid friendly and upbeat, with a chorus that truly soars like an aeroplane. I literally had it swirling around my head all day. 

“Chame” mixes an interesting bass line with an acutely percussive rhythm to create a lovely ska feel.  The song discusses the plight of indigenous people, their ancient language, and the stories they tell.  The title apparently means ‘let’s go’, and some of the lyrics use the indigenous language to pursue the message. The guitar part that ensues is more melodic and suits the ska feel with its slightly cleaner sound.  The song also benefits from some interesting key changes at the end, and elaborate percussion finally giving way to some crunchy power chords bringing up the rear.

“For The Birds” is quite simply brilliant, and provides a perfect finale to the album.  The song itself is quite stripped back, with perhaps no more than four chords on display, allowing space for the lyrics to really soar.  The song also benefits from a quite mesmerising piece of guitar work, which literally lifts you off your seat.  The major strength of the track is its instantly hummable melody, which is both unique and original.  The additional children’s backing vocals add further dynamics to a song, which for me is clearly the best track on the album.

This album is great fun, has musical depth, and contains interesting subject matter.  The tone is upbeat and positive, and there is literally never a dull moment.  The album is packed with songs that are diverse, imaginative and brimming with pop sensibility.  There is also a wonderful spontaneity to the music, with the band leaving the impression that they have recorded the entire album jamming in the garage.  Despite the somewhat organic delivery, the album is well produced, and superbly arranged throughout.  The songs have heaps of attitude, are full of energy, and contain melodies that are second to none. Despite its brevity, the album clearly succeeds in providing an authentic message brimming with energy and optimism for the twenty-first century.

Fire Dog – bold, intriguing and brilliant.

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Album Review: It's A Beautiful Day - Sonshine & Broccoli

Since 2004 Sonshine and Broccoli have been making music for children and families with immense verve and vitality.  Hailing from Toronto in Canada the duo have released three albums to date, with the new album It’s a Beautiful Day, arguably their best yet.  The album features twelve original songs designed to capture the hearts and minds of children everywhere. It’s time to put on your dancing shoes because it truly is a beautiful day.

The album kicks off with the title track, a wacky weird and wonderful song, with vocals that reminded me a little of Lena Lovich in her prime, if anyone remembers her!  The tune is infectious and is complemented by a gentle rhythm, which enables the chorus to take off like a rocket.  “Wave Hello” is more up-tempo and has a funkier feel, although lyrically it is very much an action song, with the vocals delivering the specific actions required throughout.  The song also gives the listener an early hint of the vocal duets on display, which are used very effectively throughout the album.

“Sing It Out” remains true to its title and further benefits from some hypnotic piano playing, and a two-chord verse pattern creating the necessary space to let the chorus really explode. The chorus also utilises a very percussive lyrical delivery with soaring harmonies bringing up the rear. The middle eight sounds quite ethereal, leaving one with the impression that they are floating along to the music.  “A Good Night” opens with a dramatic dance rhythm and a guitar riff that Alex Van Halen would have been proud of.  Clearly there is nothing off the table here, with all musical genres up for grabs and eagerly seized on by the band. Again the lyrics are a call to action, as the band guides the children through a number of simple movements.

“High Five” has a more electronic feel with a self-explanatory title that features predictably on the chorus. The combination of electronic keyboards, a dance beat and vocals that mutate at times into a slightly rap delivery provides another interesting combination of musical styles.  “The Painter” takes us into blues territory, and is complemented throughout by an acoustic guitar and what sounds like a Hammond organ. The song recites the story of a boy who loves painting, and then describes the different types of imagery that appeal to him.  There is a real upbeat feel to this track, as we follow the boy on a cathartic journey where he learns to ‘paint his blues away’

“Makin’ A Fort” begins with backing vocals that could sit quite comfortably on a Beach Boys album, before the song reveals its country roots, with what sounds like a banjo and a fiddle playing off each other with great expertise.  This is true country style music with superb harmonies and a lively upbeat feel. “You Got Me” is more contemporary in style, with an infectious tune, and a groove that really hits the target.  The lyrics emphasise the importance of friendship, delivered with authentic vocals, which sounds both pure and sincere.  The song finishes with a lively electric guitar that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Isley Brothers album.

“Rock Paper Scissors” reminded me a little of the B52s with its upbeat delivery, potent electric guitar and lyrics that emphasise the importance of finding alternative forms of entertainment.  “Time Travel” really rocks, with a driving bass line and powerful guitar penetrating the sound in almost Pixies fashion. The lyrics then take the listener on a musical journey in time, from the dinosaur age to fifties beach parties.

‘Try Something New” introduces a noticeable change of pace; with a groove that reminded me a little of “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz. The song reflects on some painful childhood memories including an ice-skating trip, and an introductory yoga class. Although the lyrics describe the fear and uncertainty involved, the outcome is optimistic emphasising the importance in trying something new which gets ‘a little better every day’. “Music Makes The World Go Round” is sparser, and informative with a driving bass line and a somewhat didactic lyric, which celebrates the importance of music.  We even have time for some musical solos at the end, played with the kind of flourish that should keep the kids bopping till they drop.

This album is energetic engaging and great fun.  The musicianship is first rate and although the arrangements are complex at times, they are not too complex to confuse younger listeners.  The vocal duets are equally strong and complement each other perfectly.  The music is quite difficult to categorise, because as soon as you hear a style emerging, it quickly changes into something different, sometimes even during the same song. The music appears to always be one step ahead of the listener, moving through different musical genres effortlessly.  The vitality of the album lies in the way the band manage to blend a variety of musical influences, yet retain an overall uniqueness of sound.  Perhaps most importantly this is a feel good album, which is great to dance to and is sure to engage the kids throughout.

Sonshine & Broccoli - It’s A Beautiful Day – harmony in motion.