March 24, 2008
One of the things I like most about the kids' music genre is the feeling
that artists are following their own muse, no matter how skewed, when
they jump in. Oh, sure, with everybody thinking that kids music is the
Next Big Thing, there are more than enough CDs that scream opportunism.
But there are still plenty of musicians making their music, their way.
Which brings me to Gunnar Madsen, the Bay Area artist who many years
ago helped found the well-known a capella group The Bobs, and who last
week released his third album for kids and families, I'm Growing. On
his previous two kids' albums, Madsen tapped into the humorous vein
he sometimes mined for the Bobs, such as on "Tuna Fish," all
about a guy whose parents named him, er, "Tuna Fish." That
occasional silliness continues here on I'm Growing, such as on "I
Feel a Waltz Coming On," from a musical Madsen worked on nearly
15 years ago, about a person with a fear of waltzing. Or "Mozart's
At the Window," which is the best "Beethoven's Wig" piece
never written, as multiple Madsens tell the story of a very naughty
Mozart to the tune of his 40th Symphony.
But on many songs, Madsen plays it reasonably straight, or at least
as straight as one can on a song about somebody walking from San Francisco
to Texas (the Randy Newman-esque "Walkin' Back to Texas").
"Always on the Bottom" name-checks Hilary Rodham Clinton while,
er, singing the praises of not being too ambitious. And "There's
A Bowl of Milk in the Moonlight" sounded about 80 years old to
me, but Madsen puts it about 70 years, describing his composition as
"an old English Pub song for cats." Madsen's voice is usually
front-and-center, and rightfully so, but the musical arrangements are
well-suited to these stories, either a capella, or accompanied by piano,
or even a fuller set of pop-based instruments.
The songs here really aren't "kids' songs" -- there's nary
a song here about the first day of school or learning the alphabet --
but I think kids ages 4 through 8 will be in the best frame of mind
to hear the songs. You can listen to every track from the 43-minute
album at Madsen's page for the album.
Gunnar Madsen reminds me a bit of Peter Himmelman, another singer-songwriter
whose released albums for families along with albums for adults for
many years now and who shares with him a somewhat idiosyncratic view
of the world. He's a story-teller, though Madsen tells his story not
so much via folk-rock but rather through a wide gamut of musical styles.
There's no pop-rock goldmine at the end of the rainbow here on I'm Growing,
but if your family isn't looking for that and can appreciate the well-played
(and sung) stories here, you'll enjoy the disk. Recommended.