'Twas only a matter of time before a link was made between my old record label and the ever-expanding family music world - ya know 6 degrees of separation and all. It could be said that I myself am that connection (through the kid's CD reviews I write here). Well, now there is another.
John of John and Mark's Children's Record is the linkage. Mr. John Upchurch is known by most as a player in the late-great Chicago band The Coctails (as well as a member of the fantastic indie chamber orchestra The Rachels). I too know John from those Chicago outfits, they were all in my late-90's musical wheelhouse, and I've seen him (and Mark) perform live a few times throughout the years. For me though, John Upchurch will always be, first and foremost, the proprietor and artist behind Fireproof Press, the printing press responsible for the prettiest pair of MindWalk's 5 releases. John & Fireproof also worked with June of '44, Tortoise and numerous other semi-legendary (and way more well-known) indie rock bands. It's no surprise that Fireproof, in association with the uber-talented Archer Prewitt, also designed J&M's Children's Record. It's also no surprise that the packaging is once again lovely.
When I learned that Upchurch, along with Co-Coctail Mark Greenberg (also of Archer Prewitt's band), had recorded an all-ages CD, I did a little happy dance. I was genuinely giddy and couldn't wait to hear what these two guys had made for our children's listening pleasure. As I popped the CD in, I had just one wish: that John and Mark's kiddie music would still possess their unique, jazzy musical stamp.
Boy-o-boy, does it ever! Their debut collection of curious tunes for kids is out of left-field, and out of this world.
The disc begins with "The Lawnmower", a strong candidate for kid's song-of-the-year honors. The first verse paints such a hilarious picture of kids trapped inside their house, held back from outdoor fun by an overgrown yard. While Dad & Mom tend to the unruly lawn, we all get to sing all long as the "Lawnmower goes off / and the lawnmower goes on".
"A Counting Error" alternates between a pair of distinctly different musical themes. The first uses punchy horns, whistling (that for some reason makes me think of Guns and Roses), and some left/right panned, raspy-voice utterances. The second musical idea employs soothing piano beneath a vocal exercise in counting and the letters of the alphabet. The payoff comes in the 3rd and final verse, in the form of an inventive alpha-numeric jumble. Enjoyable doesn't quite cut it. "A Counting Error" is super cool.
Every single track here, including the gorgeous instrumental piano piece "In My Blue House", will stick with you for days. Whether your singing about a trip to "Pat, the Alligator Lady's House" (a line that I simply CANNOT get out of my head), "a giraffe all brown and yellow singing a capella" ("The Elephant Leads the Way"), putting on your "Honey Boots", or about a friend who "says that he can see Ultraviolet" ("Colors") will depend only upon where the disc stops when you stop the car.
Much like Johnny Bregar's "Christmas Cove" and "Two Thumbs Up", the 10 songs here aren't about kids or kid situations necessarily, and that's perfectly okay. Let John and Mark's Children's Record serve as the template for what I'm calling Family or All-Ages music - an entire album of music that's gentle enough lyrically so as able to be enjoyed by infants, tweens and grandparents alike yet musically adventurous enough to be taken seriously as art.
John and Mark's Children's Record certainly has musical credibility and while you will be singing along easily enough, you may need to lean in a bit to appreciate this one fully. Pay close attention to the 30+ minutes of music on this disc and it's likely that you'll agree with me when I say John and Mark's Children's Record is among the best children's music albums to be released this year. Feeling like a delightful mix of vintage Sesame Street and late 60's Bob Dylan, the old school sentimentality of this surprising debut will charm the pull-ups right off your kids.
John and Mark's Children's Record has an organic, loose feel to it yet at the same time is refined and immaculately constructed & recorded. This casual elegance, if you will, ultimately becomes the album's strength. It's also what gives the music a timeless quality that should lend to an elongated shelf life.
John and Mark's Children's Record is sublime. Buy it and love it, for a long long time.