By Fred Koch
Last month's column was a spring-cleaning simply because there are so many children's and family music CDs that come my way that deserve recognition. As I have mentioned before, the children's music market is completely saturated with products and I literally get dozens of CDs a week sent to me in hopes of a review. The drill is pretty much the same with most CDs-after hearing a few tracks, I realize I can't listen to any more, let alone write about it.
But this month I have a new CD so outstanding that it deserves a lot of attention. In fact, by the time I finished writing about "The Cole Family Album," I didn't have room for any other reviews.
Before I get to the review, I'd like to touch another subject. If you have read this column for any length of time, you may have noticed I shy away from the mass-market children's music products such as Disney projects or recordings associated with television or toy characters. Why? There are a couple reasons. First, they all have such well-tuned promotion and marketing machines that you probably already have heard about them. So unless the recording is really outstanding (musically exciting and developmentally appropriate, such as "Dragon Tales" or "Blue's Clues"), I'm not going to waste my time or yours. I also feel strongly that most of the age appropriate and meaningful kids' music is coming from independent artists whose passion directs their art-folks such as Gunnar Madsen, Laurie Berkner and Dan Zanes, along with a host of other artists who are doing the right thing for the right reason.
With that in mind, here is an exciting new CD you and your children can enjoy together. THE COLE FAMILY ALBUM: MUSICAL PORTRAITS FOR THE YOUNG AT HEART, by the Coles, O'Cole Music, $12.95, www.colefamilyalbum.com; ages 4-8.
Once in a while I run across a CD that has such great songs that I'm singing along with the first listening. Why does this happen with some songs while others are forgotten as soon as they are done playing? The answer, of course, is some songs are written with artistry, but too many are without. And this is a rare family music CD in which almost every song is outstanding.
A recent Saturday morning while I was serving as taxi dad, I popped this CD into the player. It was a sunny day so I was already in a good mood. The funky little guitar riff that starts the first song and the opening lyric for "It Takes All Kinds" grabbed my attention: "Isn't the world a remarkable place with all its variety?" Sure, the message is a simple one-our strength comes from our diversity-but these simple messages are often the hardest ones to articulate artistically in song.
The songwriters, the husband and wife team of R.C. and Deena Cole, from Nashville, Tenn., have created a family recording with danceable and eclectic musical styles along with memorable songs that only get better with repeated listening. Figuring I had heard the best song of the CD, I was skeptical when I saw the title for the second song, "Put Your Happy Face On." But the bouncy percussion introduction kept my interest even though I still wondered how they could pull off a song with such a title. By the time the chorus came around again I was singing, "put your happy face on," along with them. It's more proof that good songwriters can take the simplest and most basic ideas and present them in new and fresh ways.
Next up is "Sophie's Song," a fun guessing game inspired by the family dog. Verse one starts with, "My name is Sophie/I like to bark/I chase a Frisbee," and ends with, "Can you tell me now what I am?" Sure our kids will know the answer quickly, but there's nothing wrong with that. Other verses in the quiz include a cat and a fish and it ends with a young boy named Robbie. On the surface, these seem almost too juvenile to be interesting, but the Coles make the simple pleasures come alive. I've heard about a dozen too many songs about grandparents. Most are so sappy that I can't believe anyone would even buy the message. But I keep listening to CD after CD with hope I will hear a song that says something that hasn't been said before. Finally, I have. "My Grandpa" is sung with the voice of an adoring young child and, as with all of the songs on "The Cole Family Album," it has a catchy and memorable melody. The song celebrates the times this child spends with her grandpa because, "He comes to see me with a smile on his face/and takes me fishing in his favorite place/I think he lets me win when we race/he's my Grandpa." It really is a precious, tender song and maybe it touches me especially because my son wasn't born in time to meet either of his grandpas. I think the Coles saved the best verse for last: "He's probably ‘bout a hundred years old/Grandma says he's got a heart of gold/and I'll remember every story told by my Grandpa."
The mood changes completely with "Yucky Dinner Again" and you will probably reminisce, as I did, thinking about all the yucky stuff your parents made you eat.
In the "don't take my word for it, check it out yourself" category, one of the greatest things about technology and the Internet is that we can preview music that might interest us before we buy it. So visit the "The Cole Family Album" Web site (www.colefamilyalbum.com) and listen to samples of each song from the CD and read all the lyrics.
It is so refreshing to come across such a well-written and produced family recording. Let's hope they have another batch of songs ready for us soon.Fred Koch lives in Lake Bluff with his wife and son and is an award-winning music educator, children's musician and producer. His Web site, www.BestChildrensMusic.com, helps parents, teachers and librarians select quality children's music. The Web site also includes an archive of all Koch's past reviews published in Chicago Parent. Please e-mail notes and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.