Friday, April 12, 2013

Got a Minute?

I know I've been interminably silent while making the transition over to the new website (with over thirty children's media writing samples, plus a lot of grown-up content; it's taking its time but I hope it's worth it). But I couldn't stay silent when a new album from Milkshake is out. And though it's now been a couple weeks since Got a Minute? was released, I still want to throw in my two cents about it. I wrote about this album before during its successful Kickstarter campaign, and about this band several times, such as when they released their album Great Day, which was subsequently nominated for a Grammy.

Even though I've not been writing reviews lately, I've probably been listening to more kindie rock than ever before, with my oldest daughter now nine and the youngest three. So I've really been enjoying artists like Laurie Berkner and Recess Monkey, but I still think that Milkshake is right there in the cream of the crop. Besides outside validation like their Grammy nomination, I've seen how in our family we've inadvertently integrated Great Day and especially their 2004 album Bottle of Sunshine into our morning routine and really noticed how much my kids love it; Isabelle (3) will often sing "Bluebird" on our way to daycare, and if she's sad about going it can usually pull her out of her slump. Like an earlier album title proclaimed, Milkshake makes Happy Songs--and, refreshingly, parents will agree with that as much as kids.

But now we've come to Got a Minute?, which brings a sense of completion to their previous work. The band was formed over a decade ago when friends Lisa Mathews and Mikel Gehl both became parents around the same time and applied their indie rock experience to making music that their children could enjoy. Milkshake's music and especially lyrics, if you listen through each album in order, has followed the kids' development through the years, and now that they're about to become teenagers and start listening to Radiohead or whatever children of cool rock musicians listen to, it's quite possible that Milkshake's work, in that sense, is finished. I'm sure I speak for all the fans when I say I hope not, that there are more kids out there who will keep listening for new material for years to come, but at the same time it's easy to listen to Got a Minute and feel like the music has grown up and come full circle from their self-titled album; it's in a happy place and has the potential to leave us there too if we never receive anything else from them.

In that sense, I can extend the comparison I made with the Beatles in my Great Day review. Specifically, I compared the title song "Great Day" to "Hey Jude," saying the extended vamp at the end gave children the kind of experience "Hey Jude" gave adults in 1968 (and today). Got a Minute?, then, makes me think a little of Abbey Road: it was a concept album and the group's last recorded work (although Let it Be, which was recorded earlier, was released later) that showed their musicianship at its greatest level. Again, I'm not ruling out more music from Milkshake, but the reason I love Abbey Road--as a whole, it's certainly my favorite Beatles album--is because of that sense of cohesion, mastery, and finality that the entire album evokes. They've reached the pinnacle, so where else can they go? The songs are linked thematically, lyrically, and even musically, with small motifs popping up in various places, and the lyrics even have a sense of finality that I like more than "The Long and Winding Road" which closed out Let it Be, even with the hidden gag song of "Her Majesty" at the end of the B-side. I don't know that Got a Minute? has that sense of finality, but it does have the same cohesion, mastery, and fun (the concept behind the album here is that each song is as short as possible, generally under a minute--hence the title); Milkshake, like the Beatles, has certainly reached plateaus with this album that will be hard for any kindie musician to equal.

More than anything else, Got a Minute? strikes me as certainly a more mature work than anything Milkshake's done before, which seems to be the album's defining characteristic. Where they used to sing about things like the alphabet, now there are moments like in the song "Baltimore" that talk about poverty and urban crime (the song also announces the singer as "ten going on eleven," just as "Workin' Kid Blues" announces its speaker at twelve), or "Fish," which deals with sadness at losing someone close to you, or environmental sustainability in "This Is Our Earth." "Girls Wanna Dance" is essentially about a middle-school dance, with a battle of the sexes playing out in the divided territories between the girls' tumultuous dance floor and the boys' wallflower chairs and benches, a real life issue for any twelve-year-old that's unknown to the three-to-six crowd. More than just describing the situation and leaving it at that, though, the song actually encourages the boys to take their hands out of their pockets and dance with the girls--"with me," Lisa, the female leader of an otherwise all-male band, sings. In other words, "Girls Wanna Dance" is an invitation to adolescence: it's safe enough for children, being devoid of any sexual imagery, but it recognizes the inexorable pull of maturation. And it doesn't just recognize it--it celebrates it. This is just a fun song, a fast-moving dance number that any eleven-year-old, male or female, will find hard to resist getting up and moving to. And by making puberty's changing social situations fun, Milkshake is making them accepted. There's so little media out there to help children negotiate into adolescence--not for lack of trying, but because it's so hard to do--that when something like this comes along and does it right, it's worthy of celebration for that reason alone.

So if more mature--or at least developing--emotions like these come across in the lyrics, then how does the music keep pace? Through a broad display of eclecticism that ranges multiple genres and styles. This is where the entire band's musicianship shines, in their versatility at not just hitting the various styles right but making them each infectious for young listeners who may be hearing it for the first time or have no idea they've just jumped from a pulsing rock to a rollicking country number between two adjacent tracks.

There are lots of examples: the ukelele-backed cover of "Tip Toe through the Tulips," the country "Lookin' Out the Window of My Car" and "What Do You Wanna Be?," the slow ballads "Home" and "Starry Starry Night" (which, yes, quotes Don McLean's "Vincent" in the chorus), the wordless "Anyday Waltz" with a combination of guitars and violin, the funk of "What's that Sound?," and the hard, electric rock of songs like "It's My Birthday" and "Baltimore." But perhaps one of my favorite examples comes early in the album with "We Just Wanna Have Fun," a 3/4 Irish drinking song featuring rollicking group singing and bagpipe playing. Kids might at first take this for a pirate tune, but I suspect that would just add to its fun; though short, it's actually emblematic of Milkshake's best work, a heart-felt and smile-inducing anthem to blue skies, bright days, and straight-out fun. The fact kids get to hear some uilleann pipes is just a bonus.

The band, of course, is aware of this album's place in their body of work: "In many ways, this last Milkshake CD for kids fulfills Milkshake's initial goal of reflecting the growth of their children... Because of the childlike naiveté and simplicity of [some of the songs that previously aired on PBS KIDS], combined with the all-over-the-map subject matter of the new songs, Got a Minute? provides a retrospective of the childhood years from toddler to tween. [It] truly has something for all ages and provides a perfect coda to the Milkshake catalog." 

The closing number, "Li'l Song," also encapsulates Milkshake's best lullabies and, in particular, Lisa's best vocal work (like "I Love You" from Great Day). She sings a quiet a cappella tune about writing and singing a little song together over the sound of birds and, particularly, children laughing and playing. Rather than sustain a final note, in the end her voice fades out, leaving the kids, birds, and occasional passing car to remind us what Milkshake's work has been about all along: never the musicians, always the kids. If that's all there is, it's a fitting end; if we're lucky enough to get more, then I can't wait to see where Lisa, Mikel, Cord, Michael, Tom, and Brian take us next.