Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Album Review: It's Music Time - B Minor Music

B Minor Music is the brainchild of Bree Hansen, an early childhood educator, who writes and performs original music for children. Her new album "It's Music Time" combines educational content for teachers with action packed songs for children. It achieves this using a variety of musical styles, from country to jazz to pop.  Whether this involves clapping, jumping, counting, or simply enjoying the sunshine safely, it is all here, wrapped up in one fabulous package.  So, if you are looking for music that will both captivate your students and ignite their imaginations then look no further, this truly is an educator's delight.

The album kicks off in fine form with the uptempo "B Minor Music". The song unfolds almost like a TV theme tune, accompanied by some energetic kids' vocals bringing up the rear. "Until I Tell You" is more laid back with a melodic piano dominating the track throughout. Here the kids are encouraged to jump, stomp, run, clap, wiggle and spin until they are commanded to stop. Speaking as a music teacher, this song would be a valuable acquisition in any music room.

"Can You?" is another call to action song, this time challenging the listener with the question 'can you?' to a variety of instructions which turn out to be 'as easy as can be'. It clearly benefits from an infectious groove, which will surely have the kids up and dancing in no time. Interestingly "Play Along With Me" uses a similar formula, but this time it is the playing of musical instruments which is encouraged. Each instrument is announced and performed in turn, whether this is a shaker, a tambourine or a triangle. The song instructs the children to perform the particular instrument, either individually or in a group. The gentle pace of the song is also significant, giving the kids the opportunity to perform at their own pace. 

"Fluffy Unicorns" is essentially a counting song, where the number of unicorns gradually disappears until we are left with only one. The song reminded me at times of "Five Little Ducks" but this time without the encore. Although the listener is reassured that despite their gradual disappearance the unicorns 'still love you'. I guess in some ways, the artist is bringing traditional ideas up to date for the twenty-first century.

Yes, there really is a song called "Sharing a Banana" on this album, which has more of a jazz feel, with a lively bass and some swing drumming throughout. Although the album has an overall eclectic approach, there are a few songs which draw their influence from jazz. "Clap to the Beat" also benefits from a noticeable jazz influence, as well as some superb harmonies throughout.  There is also a similar feel on "Fun in the Sun," where a lively piano and a double bass compete with guitar and trumpet to lay down the groove. Here, the song reminds children of the importance of sun safety, with lyrics that convey the point with noticeable skill and dexterity.

The artist effortlessly moves between a variety of themes on the album. The multicultural "Shades", with its somewhat hypnotic start and stop approach, seamlessly moves on to the more wacky and acerbic "Who's that Knocking?" Where, in almost "Finger Family" style, the artist invites various family members to announce themselves.

"At the Zoo" is essentially an uptempo tribute to Melbourne Zoo, where we are treated to a musical description of a variety of animals, including elephants, kangaroos, crocodiles, lions, and frogs. There are many opportunities for children to imitate the actions of the animals described in the song. Towards the end, the song takes on more of a melancholy twist, and slows down in time to flutter softly like a butterfly. The artist cleverly concludes the song with a brief summary of the adventures they have experienced. 

"I Love Counting" is an action song that is also educational. Here the children are encouraged to count to ten, and then count backwards. I guess it is slightly similar in arrangement to "Ten Little Indians," although a more updated version. There is also a very effective string section used for additional impact. The chorus is really quite uplifting, and serves to stir the emotions with its emphatic declaration of how 'I love counting', which is 'so much fun'. If we are trying to get the kids super keen to learn then this surely is a step in the right direction.

There is also plenty to dance to on this album. Whether it is the intoxicating "Scarf", an action song, with an anthemic chorus where the children are encouraged to 'twirl round and round'. To the delightful "Down in the Garden", where we can both witness and join in the dance, along with the energetic Fairy Harmony who leads the way. There are clearly heaps of opportunities to move and groove throughout. 

My favourite track is the delightful "Show a Little Kindness". It has a slight country feel, with shades of bluegrass on display. The song incorporates a shuffle beat, which provides a nice uptempo groove throughout the song. The song also features a splendid honky-tonk piano sprinkled throughout the track.  It also has one of the more memorable tunes on the album, along with an equally important message, where we are encouraged to 'show a little kindness'.  

This album takes the kids on an action packed musical adventure that never lets up for a second. Whether we are enjoying a visit to the zoo, or witnessing fluffy unicorns on the way, there is something here for everyone. The album is saturated in melody and optimism, and boasts a number of important educational themes. The whole album is put together beautifully, from the title, to the artwork to the overall production. There is nothing minor about this artist, so if you're looking for something a little bit special, grab a copy of this album, because 'It's Music Time', and you better believe it.

The album will be available everywhere on 20 February 2021.

B Minor Music - learning is fun.

Monday, 1 February 2021

Album Review: Sing Through The Year - A Little Wild Childhood - Claudia Robin Gunn

Claudia Robin Gunn is a singer-songwriter from Auckland, New Zealand, and her new album "Sing Through the Year - A Little Wild Childhood", is quite superb. It features twenty-five original songs brimming with poetic charm and delightful melodies. The album harnesses themes of nature, weather and the seasons into one colourful journey for children and families. The music has a lovely rich vibe, and the lyrics are imaginative and inspired throughout. The album is beautifully sung from beginning to end, and also benefits from the thoughtful arrangements and excellent production of Tom Fox.

The album kicks off in superb style with the enchanting "Apple Tree", a song that is both funky and atmospheric. It begins with the delicate picking of an acoustic guitar, before the bass and drums arrive with a vengeance to really shake things up. The lyrics tell the story of a child who grows her very own apple tree, and then delights in the sheer magnificence of the result. "Everyday is a Dance", is another fine song, rich in rhythm and pop sensibility. There truly is plenty to dance to here, as we are informed that 'everyday is a great day.'  Like all innovative songwriters, many of the songs are like short stories, dragged from the past, and then tossed into a sea of melody swimming in nostalgia.

The album then embarks on a magical journey through the seasons, inviting the listener on board to negotiate a full sensory overload of images along the way. The "Spring Song" highlights the innocent joy of a spring day, when 'there's nothing to do but sing'. "Summertime and Sunshine", reminds us of the numerous options summer provides, whether that is finding 'time for a swim right now,' or simply getting out on your 'boogie board.' "Kids in Autumn" is more circumspect, temporarily shutting the world out, and reminding us of all the comforts of home when the day is done. "Winter Snow" focuses on the true splendour of a winter's day, 'where winter life is but a dream', and 'such a pretty scene'.

This musical journey unravels like a stream of consciousness, where distant memories are resurrected, and return as an experience very much in the present. This is all captured through a series of moments, which come together in one singular theme. The lyrics harness an almost Joycean ability to express informal dialogue, as in the song "Dear Umbrella", where the artist embarks on an imaginary conversation with her umbrella as naturally as one would speak to an old friend. The song is then delivered with a wistful vocal, which floats around the guitar chords like a seagull in the breeze. 

The album also provides opportunities to fully embrace nature, whether we are "Walking Through The Seasons", or watching "The Acorns Roll", The salient message here is one of gratitude for things we may have taken for granted. Such sentiments are expressed either through detailed reflections of the past, or through childhood memories expressed in the present, as in "Winter Snow", where Claudia affectionately describes how 'winter snow got me all aglow.' There is also no shortage of elaborate imagery on the album either, with her "Treehouse" compared to 'a mountain top, a dragon's den, or a castle ten feet tall'.

Many of the songs celebrate the sheer beauty of nature and its omnipotent presence. Whether this is represented by the transitory essence of "Clouds"or the mystical sound of leaves, nature always seems to leave its mark. The songs actively encourage us to fully engage with the elements, through listening to the rustle of the leaves, or by embracing the awesome power of the wind, which is essentially 'everywhere'.  The lofty ambition of the lyrics further inspire the music, which is delivered with some expertise; sparse at times, and more complex where necessary. In doing so, the music occasionally captures the spirit of Enya, or Steeleye Span, where less is more, and imagination rules the day. 

"Listen to the Leaves" has a cool relaxed vibe, and describes the exotic sounds made by the leaves during a typical family outing. The song features the very talented Lucy Hiku from Itty Bitty Beats, who co-wrote the song, and delivers an astonishing vocal performance, courtesy of her expertise in Te Reo Maori pronunciation. Next up "Heart Beats" digs even deeper, declaring the 'movement of our every breath', and the blood that 'runs in our veins', as a representation of the music which exists 'in all of us'.  In this sense, music emanates from our own intrinsic response to nature, through the 'choreography in our veins', or the 'million words inside us that need to be free'.

At times the sentiment is more instructive as in "Kind Words", where we are informed that 'sweet words will warm our hearts', unlike 'cruel words' which 'send shivers'. This song gives the listener time to pause and reflect, reminding us that we all have a moral responsibility to be kind to each other. Here a gentle keyboard and a sparse bass provide the required space for the intricate guitar work to really shine. Alternatively, "Happy Place," offers more of a feel-good approach, with a sprightly tune bouncing along in quiet contentment, fondly remembering our 'beach of dreams' under 'our sky of blue'. 

Although the album presents itself in the traditional acoustic singer-songwriter style, the music is at times eclectic and difficult to define. From the acapella delivery of "Kids In Autumn", to the more lively and uplifting "Hello Neighbourhood", there is plenty of light and shade on display. The music always appears to be on the move, continually searching for a new and more inspired route to fully complement each song.  The arrangements are forever restless, ever in search of a new harmony, a string section to add more texture, or an imaginative bass line for additional impact. 

Of all the songs on the album, my personal favourite is the truly endearing "I Love the Rain," a heart rending song of outstanding beauty. Here poetry meets melody head on, and is delivered with a deep visceral connection of real substance. As Bob Marley once famously remarked, 'some people feel the rain, 'others just get wet'. Few songs could express the validity of this statement with more accuracy. Not only does the artist feel the rain, she describes it with such veracity, it makes me almost miss British weather.

Continuing on this theme, "The Weather Report", reflects on the type of weather we have no doubt all experienced,  and does so with a gentleness of touch, and a lightness of delivery that is both inspired and informative . The lyrics are superb throughout, with the kind of flair and attention to detail that would charm perhaps even Thomas Hardy.  There is an almost mystical tone throughout the song, where once again, poetic verse combines with potent melody to leaving the listener somewhat dazed and confused but never bored.

"Save The Daisies" has similar appeal, with a gentle acoustic guitar, immersed in a sea of harmony adding sweet resonance to the lyrics. Such detailed descriptions are a major strength on this album, where the artist manages to capture memories from the past so vividly that it leaves the listener spinning in a sea of nostalgia. "Camping Holiday" continues this approach, with candid negotiations between parent and child revealing opportunities for adventure that arise when there is 'no school no kindy tomorrow'. Perhaps somewhat ironic in the age of Covid.

"The Skybirds", finally make their belated arrival, landing 'on the letterboxes like mail from far away places'.  The song exudes warmth and charm, and is delivered with a real sense of reverence. The song benefits from a hypnotic melody during the verse, and a tasteful combination of musical instrumentation in the chorus. It is the clarity of the lead vocal however, that is the real stand out, complemented superbly by a sublime guitar break which reminded me a little of Hank Marvin.

"Grandfather Tree" finally brings the curtain down, arriving in almost sinister fashion with a stirring string section of some intensity. The measured introduction provides brief respite for the listener to reminisce on a musical journey that may have come full circle.  Has the seed planted in the first song now grown old, and kept a watchful eye 'over so many years in the making'? The artist gives nothing away, but gradually exits the song, conversing with the tree, as if asking a relative for advice, before finally crying out in quiet desperation to 'shelter me'. The haunting conclusion to the song, suggests a child pleading to the tree for protection, the sheer intensity of which, reminded me of Kate Bush during her "Hounds of Love" phase.

This is a truly superb album; it is ambitious, compelling and brilliantly executed. The music is haunting and tantalising in turn, and effortlessly stimulates the senses throughout. From the funky laid-back opening track "Apple Tree", to the didactic and somewhat wistful "Kind Words," the album ultimately delivers on its promise of joy, optimism and kindness. It remains a family-friendly album despite its musical depth, and succeeds in transporting the listener to a more innocent age, when days were long, and filled with hope. Claudia Robin Gunn is a truly gifted artist, with an originality of sound and a clarity of purpose second to none. 

Claudia Robin Gunn - the circle of life.