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.

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