By Fred Koch
The first artist that comes to mind for me is Gunnar Madsen, who just recently performed at Old Town School of Folk Music's Folk and Roots Festival. His recordings, which I give the highest praise, capture the ears and minds of his young listeners while at the same time keeping adults interested with his exceptional musicianship and production abilities. It is harder to write songs for this age group, but there are a few folks out there doing an outstanding job of helping kids hold on a wee bit longer to their childhood. Here's another of my favorite artists:
WHEN BULLFROGS CROAK, by Zak Morgan, $15, ages 7 and up; www.zakmorgan.com.
I enjoyed Morgan's first children's music release, "Bloom," so much that it made my list of "Best of 2001." Here's a quote from my July 2001 Chicago Parent review: "‘Bloom' doesn't sound like a ‘kid's record.' Morgan didn't dumb down the music production to make it simpler or keep the production costs down." Same holds true for "When Bullfrogs Croak." The first thing that grabs your attention is the brilliant illustration that adorns the CD cover. I really liked the cover art depicting Morgan as a strumming pied piper coming up over the hill with a parade of animals behind him. Acclaimed illustrator C.F. Payne created it. Payne's work is found in John Lithgow's picture book and recording, The Remarkable Farkle McBride, as well as in Time, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker magazines, to name a few.
Morgan's trademark wordplay hops right out at you in the title track, a story about a tadpole that transforms into a bullfrog through the miracle of nature. Here's a sample: "If you're an insect who's flyin'/watch out who's spyin'/He's a patient tongue slinger who shoots from the lip."
In addition to the great songs and fully illustrated CD booklet with lyrics, Morgan also includes (as he did with "Bloom") Zakland's Unabridged Dictionary. Here you will find clarity and the origin of phrases such as "tongue slinger" and "shoots from the lip" as well as definitions to other words in his songs. Very nice touch.
The next song, "The Cribling," reminds me of the old Smothers Brothers routine where one brother would always complain that Mom liked the other brother better. In this modern-day version, the situation gets resolved (later in life) with the realization that "you love your little siblings and your parents love you," but not without some humorous lines, such as the opening one: "Before my parents' new invention/Life was as it should be/I got all the attention."
Listeners also will enjoy and appreciate the variety in the music production. Although "When Bullfrogs Croak" is primarily guitar based, the musical styles change from song to song and have a different feel to suit the needs of each song. For instance, "The Pox of Chicken" sounds like one of the old rambling, minor key, cowboy songs. And Morgan's versatile voice makes you wonder if it is the same person singing. He goes down deep in his register and sings "You'll go cuckoo knowing every single tock your clock is tickin'/is bringin' on the nasty pox of chicken."
In addition to his fine original compositions, Morgan picks a couple of great songs. He first pays tribute to the late Shel Silverstein with a slower, Caribbean-like feeling version of "The Unicorn" (which also features Chicago area artist Justin Roberts on background vocals). Then, for the second to last tune, Morgan covers the Cat Stevens' classic "Peace Train"-a perfect choice for a family recording!
Morgan's fine writing and musical sensibilities unite again on "It's a Drag to Be a Dragon," a tale about an aging dragon that does not possess the fierceness he once had. As he readily admits, "But Father Time slithered/and my body withered/and these days I can't even make small children squirm." It is extremely clever to write the song from this point of view because it can be a springboard for children to address and talk about aging.
I don't know why I laughed when I saw the song title, "The King of Fruits," but I do know I will bring this song to school this year. It is a fun song about the American folk hero, Johnny Appleseed and I learned (in the phrases section of Zakland's Unabridged Dictionary) that the apple is known as the king of fruits due to its hardiness and versatility.
Everyone will be buzzin' to "Insect City," another gem with fun language and rhythmic rhyming along with some factual information for good measure. Maybe my favorite, though it is really hard to choose, might be "When Cordelia Played," a heart-rending story of a lonely little girl who was shunned by others until one day when they heard the miraculous and magical music that came from her violin. Again, Morgan brings Cordelia's story back to the listeners' reality by reminding them to "believe in yourself when your strings meet the bow/and be sure to let everyone hear it."
I ended my review of Zak Morgan's first recording, "Bloom," with the hope that another would soon follow. I'm glad that he took his time for the second CD-it was well worth the wait and will be enjoyed for years to come. Now that he has set the bar even higher for himself, will he be ready for the challenge? I'm betting on it!
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