To paraphrase Corinthians, when we become men and women, we put away childish records.
Music composed with nippers in mind tends to get a bad rap, and understandably so – between the twee edutainment tapes and ska-punk covers of ‘Under The Sea’, there’s often not much for the cultivated ear to latch onto. The same goes for kids making music, as Mark Mothersbaugh’s ill-fated Dev2.0 project demonstrated (although this writer remains oddly partial to 7-year-old Fonal signing Eeliks).
Even so, there’s something about the idea of composing for children that continually makes the avant-garde go gooey: Yoko Ono is reportedly working on a children’s record, and Thurston Moore memorably lectured pre-teens about Noise music a couple of years back. Whether it’s The Mekons’ Jon Langford recording as Wee Hairy Beasties, or The Moldy Peaches’ Kimya Dawson playing teacher on the Alphabutt LP, plenty of musicians seem to feel that composing for little folk encourages all sorts of artistic virtues: playfulness, open-heartedness, self-deprecation, a disregard for rules.
With that in mind, FACT has assembled a recommended listening list of alternative children’s music. From Four Tet to Bruce Haack, here are seven curiosities that show artists pitching low and, correspondingly, cutting loose.
SOOTHING SOUNDS FOR BABY
As with so much of electronic pioneer Raymond Scott’s work, Soothing Sounds For Baby feels like genius stumbled upon by chance. Much in the same way that Scott’s commercial jingles (collected on Basta Music’s superlative 1950s/1960s compilation, Manhattan Research Inc) unwittingly contained the seeds of electro and hip-hop, Soothing Sounds For Baby is at once highly functional and deeply radical. Produced in association with Connecticut’s The Gesell Institute Of Child Development, this three-volume set was designed to help antsy infants get to sleep. Cooked up on bespoke contraptions from Scott’s Manhattan Research lab, it’s an otherworldly collection of cycling synth motifs and stannic breakbeats. We can’t say for sure that an infant James Stinson nodded off to this – but it would certainly explain a lot.
‘GO NINJA DINOSAUR’
(from COLOURS ARE BRIGHTER, 2006)
Rough Trade’s mid-Noughties Colours Are Brighter compilation was a step above the usual crazy-zany-wacky compilations of ankle-biter indie: for all the nutty usual suspects (The Divine Comedy; Half Man Half Beat), there were some properly iconoclastic choices (Jonathan Richman, Ivor Cutler Trio), plus a banner appearance from The Flaming Lips. The most pleasant surprise, however, was Kieran Hebden’s curtain-opener ‘Go Go Ninja Dinosaur’. Hebden’s contemporaneous Everything Ecstatic remains his oddest, most erratic record, and ‘Go Go Ninja Dinosaur”s knock-kneed take on hip-hop sounds very much like an offcut from that record. Augmented by some diffident toasting from Princess Watermelon, it’s light as a feather, but similarly primed to tickle.
THE WAY OUT RECORD FOR CHILDREN
Spot on with the title, Bruce: this trippy olio of looped vocals, wailing synths and vocodered bedtime stories operates in a zodiac of its own. The electronic pioneer’s rich discography – recently rescued and repackaged by Stones Throw – is already a treasure trove of oddities, but The Way Out Record For Children is probably the strangest of the bunch. Following on from his Dance, Sing & Listen Again series of children’s discs, the record saw Haack collaborating with educator Miss Nelson on a series of cross-genre digital experiments. In spirit, it’s very much in keeping with the lunatic surrealism of Ren And Stimpy or SpongeBob SquarePants. More than anything else, though, it shows how liberating the remit of composing for the young can be: Haack rarely sounded this unapologetically unhinged again.
MUSIC FOR CHILDREN
There’s a pinch of irony in the title – any record with a butchered doll on the front cover is hardly going to turn up in the Early Learning Centre – but John Zorn’s Music For Children is just that: a soundtrack to a time in life when colours are sharper, shocks are scarier, and everything is shot through with a sort of terrible wonder. The inaugural record in Zorn’s Music Romance series shows the avant-garde composer quite deliberately exploring notions of innocence and early development. As it happens, the disc’s also a marvellous primer for the Zorn uninitiate, tilting from spastic be-bop (‘This Way Out’) to thrash (Naked City composition ‘Bikini Atoll’/’Bone Crusher’) to music-box kitsch (‘Sooki’s Lullaby’). ‘Cycles Du Nord’ features Lou Reed duetting with three wind machines – what infant isn’t going to benefit from that?
SUN RA & HIS ARKESTRA
(from STAY AWAKE: VARIOUS INTERPRETATIONS OF MUSIC FROM VINTAGE DISNEY FILMS, 1998)
It doesn’t take much psychiatric investigation to draw a link between the SID chip sound palettes of, say, Flying Lotus, and consoles he grew up playing. By the same principle, is there any working musician out there whose musical sensibility has been subliminally shaped by the strange, dolorous scores found in classic Disney films? Although old enough to know better, space cadet Sun Ra took to the films in a major way, interpolating snatches of Disney themes into his music and, in later years, playing live at Walt Disney World. His supple, heady ‘Pink Elephants’ is plucked from Hal Wilner’s Stay Awake collection of Disney reinterpretations. There are some unlikely humdingers on the disc: thoroughly avant-garde crooner Tom Waits rasps his way through ‘Heigh Ho’, and thoroughly un-avant-garde crooner Ringo Starr has a bizarre crack at ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’.
SONGS TO GROW ON FOR MOTHER AND CHILD
Most kids’ albums by established artists are kooky side projects. Guthrie’s Songs To Grow On For Mother And Child, by contrast, feels like the apotheosis of his sound: it’s arguably the folk giant’s folkiest release. Steadfastly minimal and highly intimate, Songs To Grow On For Mother And Child sees Guthrie at once striking instructional poses (‘1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8’) and playing the child (‘I Want My Milk (I Want It Now’)’. On occasion, he’s even sinister: try ‘I’ll Eat You, I’ll Drink You’ (“I’ll bite you, I’ll chew you…I’ll gulp you, I’ll slurp you”) for size. The hallmarks of all folk musics – hand-me-down narratives, economy of form, elements of ritual – are almost entirely in line with nursery rhymes and children’s’ tales. Songs To Grow On For Mother And Child remains a wonderful test case of how often there’s only a rusk’s breadth of difference between adult and juvenile musics.
‘PANCAKES AND SYRUP’
Golden Age MC Biz Markie has never exactly taken himself seriously: even at his critical and commercial apex, he was making albums that looked like this. Still, Markie’s recent reinvention as resident jester on Nick Jr. hip kids’ show Yo Gabba Gabba! is at once heartening and surprising. His regular Loading Video…
;feature=related” target=”_blank”>Biz’s Beat of the day segment is almost offensively weird, and he’s brought along Brandy and Mos Def to the show. In honour of a half-decade of service, we present booty bass cut ‘Pancakes And Syrup’, taken from the most recent edition of show’s star-studded Music Is Awesome CD series.