Published Sep 01, 2002Alternative rock is beginning to show its age, and the latest proof is a spate of new CDs intended for children but aimed more squarely at parents and caregivers who would much rather have their charges listening to the Handsome Family than the Wiggles.
The seeming phenomenon really shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. After all, alternative music enthusiasts who really did smell like teen spirit back in the early 90s have been old enough to consider responsible parenting for years now. The trend isn't entirely new, either. In 1999, venerable Canuck art-rock unit the Rheostatics unveiled The Story of Harmelodia a deluxe kids release featuring a fantastical storybook richly illustrated by band member Martin Tielli and a full-length CD of songs and narration.
For Rob Miller, co-proprietor of Chicago alt-country stable Bloodshot Records, the fact that those whose tastes have long run against mainstream currents should want their offspring to enjoy aural options beyond the banality of Bananas in Pajamas is a given. "I have no connection to mainstream society and what it's concerned with. In June, Bloodshot trotted out a collection of nursery rhythms called The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs For Bumpy Wagon Rides. "The artists on [Bloodshot] that have kids are very dissatisfied with the kind of Disney-inflected, feel-good kind of vapid, thinly-veiled commercial kids stuff that's going on out there. So they're writing their own songs for their kids or seeking out more obscure things."
The Bottle Let Me Down features 26 tracks by the twangy likes of Kelly Hogan, Alejandro Escovedo, Robbie Fulks and the Waco Brothers, to name a few. Approximately half the songs are original compositions, while the rest are inspired reworkings of veritable classics like "On Top Of Spaghetti," "Camptown Races" and "Rubber Duckie."
"I think our fans who do have kids and show up at matinee shows are also a little bored and insulted at how things like Barney kind of talk down to the kids," adds Miller.
That same sense of dissatisfaction is what initially inspired They Might Be Giants multi-instrumentalists John Linnell and John Flansburgh to give composing for tots a shot. The veteran New York City alt-pop brainiacs recently issued No! a full-length disc of predictably melodic and incorrigibly silly songs for kids (or as the back of the disc jacket enthuses, "for the entire family"). On the phone from his bungalow in upstate New York, Linnell says he's been aware of the genre's typical trappings since he himself was a wee lad.
"We grew up with the idea that music for kids was boring because it was specifically supposed to improve you in some way," recalls Linnell, who became a father about three years ago. "Even if it was rock'n'roll, it had been co-opted for some other purpose and I think that's been the pattern. So we wanted to make a record that kids would completely enjoy for no other reason than that it was entertaining and fun."
Linnell and Flansburgh began working on the material for No! nearly two years ago while composing incidental music for TV sitcom Malcolm In The Middle. (They scored the show's first two seasons and did the theme song.) According to Linnell, though, the pair has harboured more than just a passing interest in kids music for some time.
"We've actually re-purposed kids' stuff for adults in the past," says Linnell. "From the very beginning, we've done a song in our show called Why Does the Sun Shine?' that was written for kids and has this very didactic explanation of how the sun works. It's a funny song because it's really telling you how the sun works in this musical way, and it's the kind of song that we thought would be interesting to play just because it doesn't sound like what you usually hear from a band."
As most fans will likely concur, TMBG's move onto the kid-music market hasn't required too strenuous a stylistic stretch. Even so, with the exception of a handful of songs, Linnell doesn't consider his band's catalogue particularly suitable for children.
"We've had a history of playing for people who consider our music appropriate to play for their own kids," he says. "They might have a Snoop Dogg record in their collection, but we're the record that they would actually allow their own children to hear. I think that may be based on a surface impression of what we're doing. When we do music for adults, the melodies are sort of pleasant and there isn't a lot of swearing, which is probably good. But there is a lot of dark stuff on our records, and a lot of it I would consider inappropriate for kids."
Of course, music deemed appropriate for kids isn't necessarily what kids want to hear, especially those whose folks encourage originality and independence of mind. Take the tiny tastemakers who helped test-play the material on Somebody Needs a Timeout, a new release from fledgling Winnipeg label Campfirecords.
"None of the kids we know like to listen to regular kids music," says Jennie Smith, who, along with fellow Winnipeg music scenester Nettie Proulx, conceived, planned and co-ordinated the ambitious compilation project an expansive two-CD compilation featuring 41 Canadian artists trying their independent hands at something akin to Schoolhouse Rock.
Fortunately for the industrious pair (whose avant-garde band the Happy Campers also contributed a song), there's nothing regular about the material on Somebody Needs a Timeout. The disc's track listing reads like a who's who of Winnipeg talent, including mod-rockers Duotang, chamber-pop chanteuse Christine Fellows, Royal Art Lodge weirdoes Albatross, the aptly-named Pop Addiction Foundation and hip-hop unit Mood Ruff, to name a few. Brampton rockers Moneen, London's Two-Minute Miracles and Toronto artists By Divine Right and Hayden impart some regional variety to the package, which, like its Bloodshot counterpart, features both original tunes and covers.
Unlike the other two new alt-kids releases, though, Somebody Need A Timeout is more likely to find greater favour among adult listeners than wee ones. A number of tracks, after all, were plucked directly from bands' regular CDs and bear few or none of the hallmarks generally associated with child-appropriate fare (intelligible lyrics and danceability, for instance). One track in particular flies directly in the face of children's music conventions hardcore trio Propagandhi's cover of "Come To The Sabbat," originally performed by 70s occult-metal band Black Widow.
"Propagandhi was the biggest problem that we had with the CD," says Smith. "We had to make it a hidden track because the chorus is Come to the Sabbat, Satan's there.' The music is relatively kid-friendly, and the kids that we played it for absolutely loved it," she continues, adding it's the only Propagandhi song she's aware of that features keyboards. "But if people play this at pre-school or something and they get that song, someone's not going to be too happy when the kids go home chanting it."
Unless Smith and Proulx actively service day-cares with free CDs, though, that scenario isn't likely to play itself out. And while Propagandhi's choice of material may, at first blush, seem like some sort of ill-conceived practical joke, the more likely explanation has something to do with challenging listeners notions of what society deems suitable, or unsuitable, for our children's artistic intake. Given the mind numbingly simple, two-dimensional drivel foisted upon us by Barney and company, perhaps there's some benefit to be realised by introducing kids to the notion of critical thought and the duality of humankind. Additionally, the Propagandhi track may provide an even greater service by demystify superstitious nonsense and heavy metal in one fell swoop.
Whatever the case, the potentially offensive track prompted Smith and Proulx to hide the song at disc's end behind a 15-minute silent buffer. The pair was also moved to include a warning in the CD's liner notes to advise listeners of the whereabouts of Propagandhi's contribution.
It's worth noting Propagandhi was otherwise instrumental in the production of Somebody Needs a Timeout. The outspoken band's community-minded indie label G7 Welcoming Committee fronted Smith and Proulx an interest-free loan in order to pay for the manufacturing of the album's first pressing. Proceeds from sales of Somebody Needs a Timeout go towards The Dream of a Common Language a charitable, non-profit music-education program, established by former I Spy drummer James Ash, for the benefit of impoverished Winnipeg inner-city youth.