Sunday, December 11, 2011

Music We Love: “Tumble Bee” by Laura Veirs

Music Review by Jack Silbert
When I first heard Laura Veirs back in 2004, her haunting voice uttering the words “The fate of Kurt Cobain, junk coursing through his veins ….,” my immediate thought wasn’t, “Ooh, I can’t wait for the children’s album!” But I did instantly become a fan: Her smart lyrics and spare sound spoke to me pretty directly. When I saw a photo, I was definitely hooked. The glasses, lank hair, inscrutable expression—this is the stuff of indie-geek crushes.

When I finally saw Veirs live in February, 2010, a little had changed. All her albums with noted Pacific Northwest producer Tucker Martine had featured interesting, organic instrumentation. But her new release at the time, July Flame,had a somewhat warmer feel. And there was something else different, I can’t quite remember … oh, yes. She was seven months pregnant.

Now, there’s a subset of us fans out there who get a wee bit nervous when our favorites settle down and crank out the seemingly requisite children’s book, movie, or album. Have they gone soft on us? But Laura Veirs has always stood out from the crowd, and I’m thrilled to report that Tumble Beeis no exception. It is a joy of an album that can be treasured by parents, kids, and non-parents alike.

Carson Ellis’s cover art sets the mood: old-timey but whimsical. A Revolutionary soldier and his best girl dance a waltz amongst the giant flowers to fiddle strains from a formally-dressed grasshopper. In color and composition it actually reminded me of the classic Jim Flora art in a book (The Day the Cow Sneezed) I reviewed here recently.

The album’s subtitle is “Sings Folk Songs for Children” and all but the title track are traditional tunes. However, unless you’re a musicologist, you’re likely unfamiliar with most of the selections. And it’s a fun process of discovery. The songs never sound like relics. Martine and the assembled performers (including Béla Fleck and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James) keep delivering friendly, lively surprises: a violin here, accordion there. In “Jack Can I Ride?” a rock guitar keeps threatening to burst through the gate, but ultimately behaves itself.

The opening track, “Little Lap Dog Lullaby,” kicks off with a mellow banjo straight outta “Rainbow Connection.” Unobtrusive horns add a little flavor, as does a quick piano trill. Laura’s voice is warm and welcoming, but not a corny over-the-top kid-music warmth. There’s that hint of indie-rock austerity here that, to me, makes the warmth feel all the more genuine. You can actually get a free MP3 of this song by visiting Veirs’s website and connecting to her on Facebook. There’s no risk; you can always unfriend her later. But why would you want to? She’s a sweetheart.

That song is one of three lullabies here (four, if you count the closing piano instrumental, “Prairie Dream.”) They’re not all sequenced together, so for some kids you may wish to pick and choose different songs for different times of day or moods. “Prairie Lullaby” seems especially perfect for sleepytime. It’s a cowboy lullaby complete with gentle yodeling. Some slightly spooky background vocals enter the proceedings, but don’t worry, I think it’s just the wind outside. Shhh, sleep now.

Most of the other tunes are significantly jauntier. A good time is on hand. Owners of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music will recall the delightful “King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki Me O.” “The Fox” and “Jump Down Spin Around” both have fun backing vocals; the latter also features jumping, stomping sound effects and quickly recited lyrics that practically dare you to sing along. “Why Oh Why” is the funniest song here. It’s a litany of surreal questions a kid might ask in that “Why?” phase. After several listens, I’m still laughing at “Why can’t a mouse eat a streetcar?”

Bookish rock fans may be most excited for “Soldier’s Joy,” Veirs’s latest duet with the Decemberists’ Colin Meloy. He is no stranger to military-themed songs, with “When the War Came,” “Yankee Bayonet” (also a Veirs duet), and the recent “This Is Why We Fight” already in the Meloy canon. It’s nice to hear him lighten up a tad with this fiddle-and-jaw-harp-driven Revolutionary romp. (The song is generally associated with the Civil War, but this is a later set of lyrics.)

The most recognizable song on here inspires perhaps the loveliest performance. It’s “Jamaica Farewell” (“Sad to say I’m on my way, won’t be back for many a day ….”), delivered with a laid-back Calypso lilt. Halfway through, there’s a swell of strings, that gets me every single time.

And that’s not all: The CD and LP come with a hanging-mobile kit. There’s even an online video of Veirs showing you how to put it together. This is multimedia, folks!

Your mileage may vary, but there’s a chance that Tumble Bee could become a favorite album for both you and your kid. And how cool would that be?

Jack Silbert is a writer of children's books, restaurant reviews, witty essays, and the like. He lives in Hoboken, N.J.

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