Monday, August 31, 2009

Disney Acquires Marvel Comics

It was announced today that Disney is acquiring Marvel for $4 billion. So if you're the kind of person who ever wanted to see Spiderman climbing up the side of the Cinderella castle in Anaheim, today's your lucky day. It will be very interesting to see how this effects Marvel properties (something akin to how the Muppets have played out over the past several years?), but here's the story from KidScreen, by Emily Claire Afan, with statements from both companies. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Great Day with Milkshake

A two-year break between albums can mean a lifetime when your fans are only three years old. But in this case the wait has been worth it, as Milkshake, one of the best children's bands in the country, released their new album Great Day yesterday. I've been listening to it for over a week, with and without Loretta, and am nothing less than impressed. After Loretta's in bed I've been letting the album mix with the likes of U2, the Kinks, Buffalo Springfield, and the Beatles, and at times I find myself forgetting that this is supposed to be children's music at all. In other words, it fits in with all those bands. Thus, in line with what I wrote in my last post, Milkshake has erased the line between kids' music and grown-up music: nowadays good music is just good music. (And parents can listen too!)

That in fact was the entire premise behind Milkshake's formation. The band formed in 2002 when two members of the indy rock band Love Riot, Lisa Mathews and Mikel Gehl, both had children born into their families and started creating music for them. Releasing an album was natural, and Happy Songs came out that year, followed by Bottle of Sunshine in 2004 and Play! in 2007. Now with Great Day, if there's a theme apparent in these titles that only speaks to the groups' commitment to creating uplifting, empowering, energetic music. One of the really refreshing things about listening to Milkshake as opposed to, say, the Kinks, is the lack of irony in the former's lyrics: a Great Day can really just be a Great Day, and that's all it is. Kids are unabashed in their guilessness, and I'm glad Mathews and Gehl have let that come through. I suppose they're rather akin to U2 in that respect.

The group's sidemen deserve mention: Mathews sings, Gehl plays acoustic and electric guitars, Michael Sheppard plays electric guitar, Cord Neal bass guitar, Tom Moon drums, and Brian Simms keyboards and accordion. On this album there's also Marcy Marxer on ukulele and mandolin, Cathy Fink on banjo, and Rodney Henry on guitar and vocals, with basically everybody pitching in on the background singing. Great Day was produced by Tor Hyams.

I mention Hyams because one of the things I've noticed musicians lamenting lately in Rolling Stone is the passing of the album. Listeners are so accustomed to dealing in tracks now that nobody listens to an album beginning to end anymore. So in this case I want to say that the individual tracks stand out and are fantastic, yet the same thing holds true: the album is crafted from beginning to end, with a definite emotional arc. The opening number, "Shake It Up," launches right into an up-tempo, driving invitation to join in the party: "The band is jamming / Everyone's dancing / Friends are coming by to play. / Guitars ringing / Everybody's singing / It's another beautiful day." This takes eleven seconds. Thus evoking the title of the album--although this isn't the title track--the very first moments are saying in effect, "If you aren't dancing already you've almost missed it."--Shake it up and don't just sit there. Kids are immediately off the couch, bouncing, wiggling, and jamming away. If we fast forward all the way to the end of "Great Day" at the end of the album, we have an extended vamp that will keep the kids moving essentially as long as the parents will let them. This song, in fact, is exceptionally well-crafted: I'm not a music writer so my descriptions are limited, but it starts with a series of staccato piano chords and the twittering of birds, into which Mathews starts singing, legato and brightly, "It's a great day," followed by some faster descriptions and more drawn out "It's a great day" refrains. The pattern is slightly imitative of the very similarly titled U2 song, "Beautiful Day," with the rhythmic keyboard, sustained strings (instead of birds), soft entrance on the vocals, and quick assertion, fairly irony-less, that it really is a beautiful day. Mathews just gets to her assertion quicker than Bono. The body of the song (I'm back to "Great Day" now) holds up, piling on the optimism as the beat slowly builds, and then the closing vamp I just mentioned, with its reverberating guitars, male vocal harmony, and extra-musical sound effects, is the kids' version of "Hey Jude." And it's about time they got one.

The upbeat numbers really rock, and I appreciate having some songs to do that with for Loretta without having to worry about lyrics or overly loud instrumentations. I can't justify singling out certain songs over others, but the first track I heard, "Statue of Me," is extremely memorable (it's got a hook), and I once opened back up my computer after a break and jumped into the middle of the bluesy "Recipe" only to have to check iTunes to see who was playing those electric guitar riffs. "You Did It" takes the empowering sentiment from Dora the Explorer and so many other shows and makes it much more palatable and, hence, realistic--and no less encouraging for kids who are mastering new skills.

But the ballads are great as well. "I Love You" is unabashed in its praise of the listener, and since it's sung from a parent to a child it is so much more concrete than the seven googol romantic love songs out there that we all know describe a much more fickle kind of love. The repetition of this single sentiment, over and over, is exactly the right thing for kids to hear. By the end the guitar drops out and Mathews finishes with a few, quiet, almost earthy repetitions of the phrase, almost whispering her child to sleep. (If you want a lullaby from the album, this is it, although it's a little short.) The vacuum her diminishing voice creates will draw children in, attentively listening to the last notes. Pulling back like this in the middle of a rock album is important: it shows the phrasing of the entire album (this is the penultimate track, just before the fairly rocking "Great Day" I just described) and, because of its contrast to the louder surrounding material, will acquire greater attention from the kids. 

Milkshake's website has some sample MP3s available, which is how I first heard some of the music weeks ago. Click through and check them out.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Kind of Blue at 50

It is finally here: the fiftieth anniversary of one of the greatest albums of all time, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, released August 17, 1959. As I write this I'm listening to Cannonball Adderley's solo on "So What?" that I tried in vain to transcribe in college on my own alto saxophone. While that was a miserable failure, it proved to me again (as though I needed it) just how incredible the album and the musicians on it are. 

There's a mammoth new special edition out there, but I think everyone--kids included--should just listen to a track or two, regardless of your previous jazz experience. It's simply great music, and that brings me to how this applies to children's media: good music makes for good, smart kids. I'm no proponent of the Mozart effect, or Bach effect, or whatever it's called, but by that I understand the belief that listening to classical or complex music can actually physically fire more synapses and increase brain capacity. That's essentially a myth, but we must be careful to not toss out the baby with the bathwater--there's still a place for great music in a child's life, be it jazz, classical, or something else.

My wife Carol runs on Saturday mornings (even seven months pregnant), so for Loretta and I that's become Jazz Saturday Mornings, wherein we fire up iTunes and make either pancakes or French toast, with the occasional foray into waffles. We've been doing that most weeks for well over a year, and I've been able to expose her to quite a variety of styles, from early New Orleans King Oliver type stuff to Herbie Hancock, maybe a dash of Ornette Coleman, etc. She's liked some of it--she loved making a video to Dixieland (Louis Armstrong and the Hot Fives) for Mardi Gras--but it hasn't sunk into her like, say, The Little Mermaid music. So, speaking of Disney, that's why I was so pleased several months ago when we watched The Aristocats. The "Everybody Wants to Be a Cat" number gave us a hook with which to really draw her into jazz. It is a classic of children's cinema:

There's also an earlier scene in which two of the kittens, Marie and Berlioz, practice the piano while singing another great number. (See it here; the songs are by the ubiquitous Sherman brothers, whom I've written about before.) So long story short we combined the two scenes and started playing "Aristocats practice jazz" in our Jazz Saturday Mornings by playing Diana Krall, especially her work with her original drumless trio in the Nat Cole mode (All For You, etc.). So now Loretta pretends to be Marie singing and playing the piano, I fill in on everything else, and several weeks later I now have a five-year-old who knows most of the words to "Hit that Jive, Jack." Diana Krall and The Aristocats have serendipitously combined to help my daughter love music. (Coincidence that Carol's and my third or fourth date was a Diana Krall concert? Hm...)

This is verbose and autobiographical, but what's the point? That there's room for good adult music in children's lives. Today on its anniversary we should remember that Kind of Blue is one of those albums, accessible to everyone of every age. If kids listen to music like this, they won't necessarily enlarge their brains or gain the power to explain polyphonic improvisation or even how modal jazz works, but they will learn to appreciate great art. And when the time comes for them to start learning their scales and their arpeggios, it certainly won't have hurt. 

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Shakespeare in 3D

I'm a longstanding bardophile--Shakespeare (seen here in those newfangled 3D glasses) is the only playwright who I've read through his entire corpus, besides lots of viewing, especially at the Globe in London, and a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon--so it's interesting to learn in Variety about the plans to adapt six of his best known plays as 3D films for kids; equally interesting is the plan to make them as musicals, Steve Coogan's recent foray notwithstanding. (Actually, I quite liked Kenneth Branagh's musical Love's Labours Lost a few years back, despite the necessary thinning of the plot to fit in the jazz standards.) Here is the Variety article, by Audrey Ward. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Little House in New York(er)

Judith Thurman has a fantastic article in last week's New Yorker about the Little House author Laura Ingalls Wilder (above) and her daughter Rose. I've been reading the New Yorker every week for about a year and a half and I've been quite pleased with the number of articles they've published about children's literature in that time, with both Babar and Stuart Little springing to mind. I'm grateful for such in-depth looks at the lives of children's authors of which this is the latest. Here it is.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Older Dora - Part 3

I've written, briefly, twice before about Nickelodeon's plans to update Dora the Explorer by creating an older Dora to appeal to girls from 5-8. Here's my entry from August 2008 and again from February, when Nick and licensor Mattel unveiled the character's new look. And, by the way, here is the image that is circulating the Web under that banner (I'll optimistically assume it's legitimate, but even if not it's probably a step towards what the finished character design will look like):

Controversy continues to broil, as far as I know. I haven't checked lately for blog entries and upset mothers and things of that nature, but here is at least one article from April that I've been meaning to link to since I read it back then. 

My thoughts haven't evolved too much in the passing months. I think there's great potential for good or bad, and the property could go either way. The bad potentialities are obvious and are the very issues that have upset parents: that the new character will reinforce negative stereotypes for girls and will thereby diminish their potential. In other words, the new Dora will focus on superficial qualities like appearance and fashion that many parents of girls, myself included, wish would be entirely eradicated from the lives of children and teenagers. So this Dora could be leading kids--they're not even "tweens" yet, and that in itself is a term I distrust as an attempt to age up kids too soon (in my book an eleven-year-old is still a child)--down the path of the Dark Side. 

But the good side has some pretty intense potential, especially given the penetration of the current show (which will continue, with its merchandising intact, by the way) and the empowering components of its curriculum. I know Dora is often criticized, as on the famous Saturday Night Live skit, for encouraging passivity and subjugation--bossing kids about--but the whole point of preschool programming is to encourage self-sufficiency in children. As an interactive show, Dora takes that about as far as you can by really giving strong prompts to children to help them get Dora's questions right and feel empowered in helping her achieve her quests. Take that same commitment to empowerment and raise it up to the older age group and you can have something very needed. The older kids get, on up to adolescence, the harder it is to create shows with curriculum that they will actually watch. If Nick can add the new Dora, as a television show and not just a licensing endeavor, to their programs for 5-8 year-olds, then that will strengthen the bridge for carrying curriculum over into young adulthood. She has the star charisma to be able to pull that off more than any original series. So that's what I hope to see happen: all the good possibilities fulfilled and all the negative ones circumvented. I hope Mattel avoids making her into a dress-up doll--her head's the same size as the Bratz--and Nickelodeon makes a show with a great hook and curriculum for older kids.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Seven Pleasures: A Kid in the Library

After I wrote the other day about the Dallas library, Willard Spiegelman graciously took the trouble to write me with an update about events since he wrote the D Magazine article in April. Long story short, since then there have been major cuts in the city library budget, resulting in reductions in hours, staff, purchasing, and all other areas of library operations. Lamentable but typical of what's happening all over the country.

The good news, however, is that Spiegelman also has a new book out. It's called Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness. The way in which it fits into this blog's subject matter is in its first chapter on reading, which includes recollections of his childhood trips to the Free Library of Philadelphia. 

I have not been able to read it yet, but here's a review--with links to other reviews and an excerpt from the beginning--from the Dallas Morning News. Here's another from, and the book's amazon page, where it's under $16. 

I obviously haven't read it yet, but I am a fan of a good personal essay, and an obvious advocate for taking kids to libraries. It would be nice for each of us, especially as we deal with little ones of our own, to take a moment to recollect how the low-tech libraries of our childhoods affected us and try to recreate that--incorporating all the new technologies and wonderful children's books of recent years--for children today. 

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Chapman After One Year

It's been just over a year since Chapman Entertainment, the production company of Keith Chapman, opened up its own production facility to take over its shows Fifi and the Flowertots and Roary the Racing Car from Cosgrove Hall Films. The company itself was founded in 2002, and its progress has been astounding, particularly with these two shows that rank high up in the preschool girls and boys categories (respectively) across the globe. I just noted the anniversary while researching some other things about the company and came across this interview with Chapman from last July 9. It's not too long but the information about where the company's been and where it's going is insightful.