If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that my four-year-old son is a rocker. An unintended perk of writing children’s music reviews for GeekDad is that I’ve really been able to get a read on what it is he responds to in music, and I can say with some confidence that he, to paraphrase Kiss, loves it loud. Thus, when a copy of Brian Vogan‘s 2008 release Little Songs made its way into my mailbox, I kind of doubted he’d dig it. With its bright harmonies, sparse solos, and overall calming approach to children’s songwriting, I feared it may miss the mark. And, on one level, it did.
What I didn’t anticipate was how well my daughter, a new addition just shy of one, would react. She’s the mellower of the two, and Brian’s songs really seemed to appeal to her.
From its earliest tracks, Little Songs is the mellower counterpart to the Imagination Movers kiddie arena anthems or Rock Daddy Rock‘s minimalist junior punk. "That’s How a Pumpkin Grows," for example, is a sweet, smooth starter that evokes family trips to your local patch, whereas follow-ups "Racecar" and "Animal ABCs" play more with tempo and repetition and rely upon simpler, more traditional lyric structure. (With the exception of the latter’s line "n is for nutria," which namedrops a rodent with which I was totally unfamiliar.)
"Animal ABCs" also establishes an interesting retro motif that pops up throughout the album, with instrumental backing that’s part ragtime and part boogie woogie with just a dash of rockabilly. This bleeds over into the song "Chess," a rather unlikely subject for kid’s music, which brings in a 50s rock ballad chorus to dress up what initially comes off as an overly dry number, and makes it an easy highlight. "We Call it Fall" and "The Listening Song" are more conventionally themed around the subjects of the most colorful season and simple anatomy respectively, but both bring in a uniquely uplifting vocal quality that sets them apart from their fellows.
Little Songs‘ seventh track, "Firefighter," was the one song that truly broke with the established feel of the album. It’s a guitar-based banger that brings backup vocalist Kari May’s singing to the forefront atop a driving lead, and it manages to do the impossible by making a rock solo seem at home on a kid’s album. Between the axe-slinging and the subject matter, this was the notable exception that brought my son back into our impromptu listening party.
After that interesting distraction, the album again returns to form with the happy piano pop of "Say Hello" and seasonally appropriate head-bobber "Happy Valentine’s Day." In its waning moments, however, it unleashes another pair of pleasant surprises. "Spring," which obviously centers on another children’s music staple, actually incorporates a number of happy allusions to parenthood and childrearing, and its closer, "Highfive," is easily the most satisfying 39 seconds of songwriting I’ve heard in ages. It helps to cap off what feels like a genuinely personal interaction with Brian and company, and even manages to invoke, ever so slightly, Tom Waits’s "I Don’t Want to Grow Up."
Though not an easy sell if your kids are future headbangers, Little Songs is an amazing effort that elevates children’s music through the use of smart songwriting, excellent production, and genuine substance. Though it plays with a number of styles, it’s an album that always seems to understand what it is. Further, it engages children while never alienating parents.
It shares a number of musical and thematic commonalities with the recent children’s music of geek rock icons They Might Be Giants, but it’s far more deserving of praise on its own merits. In a world full of processed, chocolate-dipped, candy-sprinkled kid’s tunes, Brian Vogan’s work is more akin to Animal Crackers: simple, sweet, and satisfying without being gimmicky.
WIRED: Brian’s calm, assuring vocals. An obviously high level of musicality and production acumen. Variety.
TIRED: Some odd song subjects. Perhaps too mellow for some.