The kids have their say: Naked Brothers Band and Kimya Dawson are 2008's best
Compiling my year-end lists always makes me realize how many areas in which I'm not an expert. Jazz, Latin music, down-tempo electronica, Finnish Christian mystical jams... there are so many icebergs out there, and I've hardly touched their tips. I do often wander into some specialized areas, however.
One is kids' music.
Since I am a mama, that stuff gets into my house and onto the stereo. My 5-year-old (happy birthday, Bebe!) is the kind of obsessive listener most kids become when they turn into tweens. I'm still working on her to sit still for the new Wee Hairy Beasties album, "Holidays Gone Crazy"; she thinks it's too mellow. How could music by members of the Mekons ever be classified as mellow? Mom is mystified.
And so opens the fissure that, by the end of the next decade, will surely yawn into a massive generational divide. It's not like I agreed with my mom about music when I was a kid -- I liked the Monkees in reruns, and she was really into Perry Como.
Bebe and I have joined forces and dance wildly together to a few musical choices this year. We're glad that our very favorite faux-relative, Uncle Rock, has a new DVD. (Find it here.) Of all the other stuff we check out, we loved two songs in particular. The artists who made them couldn't be more different, but both managed to be excellent for kids and relevant to adults.
The first is Naked Brothers Band, our vote for No. 1 Alternative to the JoBros.
Nat and Alex Wolff -- also known as the Naked Brothers -- are the real-life sons of musician Michael Wolff and actor-director Polly Draper; they formed a band in preschool, and their mom created a sitcom about their musical exploits, which airs on Nickelodeon.
The program is like a more media-savvy "Partridge Family." It's bearable for parents -- not as good as "Benji," better than "Camp Rock." What's outstanding is the Naked Brothers Band's music. Soulful power pop in the Hanson vein, it shows more depth and old-school rock and roll attitude than the group's Disney-fied rivals usually muster. (On Saturday, Nat and Alex bring their Fully Clothed Tour to the House of Blues in Anaheim, and Sunday they're at the Roxy in Los Angeles. More information here and here.)
Bebe and I love all of "I Don't Want to Go to School," the band's second album, but the stand-out track is "Body I Occupy." A hard to classify pop-rocker about not communicating with someone you love (probably a girlfriend, but maybe a parent), the song turns philosophical as Nat Wolff dwells on the title phrase.
"In this body I occupy," he sings over and over in a tightly wound falsetto as his brother, Alex, taps out a tense drumbeat and strings and backing vocals swell and eddy around him. The words, repeated over and over, separate from the rest of the song to become an existential meditation. Here's a kid just realizing that his body limits everything he does -- the way he talks, the emotions he can't control, his ability to stay in a happy moment or get beyond a bad one.
"Time will never stop, and you'll be turning back in time," he moans in the bridge, posing that as a threat to whoever has wronged him, but also mulling it himself; it's the sound of a kid turning into a teen, the first terrifying step into adulthood. Just to send the message home, halfway through Wolff emits a very grown-up little groan and the guitars sag -- an obvious reference to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." With that undercurrent resonating, the Naked Brothers Band meld the bounce of childish emotion and the gravitas of adolescent angst.
The year's other great kids' song is also about occupying a body. The baby that came to life inside Kimya Dawson's womb inspired "Smoothie," the standout track on the "Juno" soundtrack composer's wacky, moving, dirty-like-a-diaper album "Alphabutt."
"Alphabutt" has the same precious, faux-naif sound Dawson developed as part of the Moldy Peaches; applied to music actually meant to be sung by children, it makes total sense. Kids can be heard throughout the songs, and their spontaneous, disorganized back-up vocals, aided by the similarly off-tune efforts of various parents, reveal this post-punk hippie mom as the unpretentious community organizer she is.
She's the fun mom with the serious edge, who makes fart jokes with the kindergartners and then gets the parents to sign a petition to stop that Home Depot threatening to overtake the vacant lot near the playground. For her, "silly" and "earnest" aren't contradictory emotions -- they're both healthy outpourings of love.
"Smoothie" is a silly and earnest as a song can be. Dawson's toddler daughter, Panda, appears throughout the album, as a voice and as subject matter -- "Louie" celebrates her favorite dog, "Pee Pee in the Potty" is about the obvious milestone, and "I Love You Sweet Baby" has the whole nuclear family recounting a beautifully ordinary day. "Smoothie" goes back to before Panda was born, when she was just a kernel of hope and anxiety inside Dawson's thirtysomething body.
"Hey papa, make mama a smoothie, make mama a smoothie right now," Dawson declares, rolling out an irresistibly swift singsong melody. As her words speed up, they chronicle her concerns -- the baby's not moving in her womb, is something wrong?
A smoothie usually sets her kicking, though, causing Dawson's tummy to gurgle "like a fart in a tub" and letting her know everything's all right.
Never have I heard a song so effectively address a serious adult concern -- an older first-time mom going "crazy" about the health of her baby -- and simultaneously appeal to a child's innocence. (Actually, the Malvina Reynolds song "Little Boxes" tops it, but it's an acknowledged classic.)
For my Bebe, "Smoothie" is a game of quickly fired phrases that makes her dance and giggle. For me, it's a beautiful expression of how parenthood amplifies uncertainty, just as surely as it offers hope. Its overflowing meaning is a perfect expression of artistic generosity, and that's what kids' music, and all music, is about.
The Naked Brothers Band album "I Don't Want to Go to School" is available on Nickelodeon/Columbia Records. "Body I Occupy" can also be downloaded as part of Rock Band for PlayStation 3. As noted above, Nat and Alex Wolff play Saturday afternoon at the House of Blues in Anaheim and Sunday at the Roxy on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
"Alphabutt," from Kimya Dawson and Friends, is available on K Records. Keep track of Kimya's activities on her MySpace page.
-- Ann Powers
Related: Kid rockers history
Photo credits: Nat Wolff, above, of the Naked Brothers and Miley Cyrus, both courtesy of Getty Images.