Monday, January 2, 2012

Music We Love: “Strange Dees, Indeed” by the Deedle Deedle Dees

Music Review by Jack Silbert
I hadn’t even popped the CD into the player, and the group’s name had already brought to mind Fiddler on the Roof, Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” and of course Rick Dees, who gave us that masterwork “Disco Duck.” Meanwhile, the album title was making me think of the John Lennon song “Nobody Told Me.” Most peculiar, mama!

None of these disparate elements actually appear on the album, and yet, I suppose the spirit of each one is here: the Old World, New York City, silliness, character development. And that just skims the surface of Strange Dees, Indeed. You see, the Deedle Deedle Dees could be classified as “edutainment.” Each song teaches a topic. And while They Might Be Giants’ last couple of kids’ albums have focused on individual subjects (the alphabet and science), Strange Dees, Indeed zig-zags all across the curriculum with often joyous results.

We get songs about John Adams and wife Abigail, Cool Papa Bell of baseball’s Negro Leagues, Jewish folklore, Marie Curie, Sojourner Truth, British coins, trees, birds, Moby Dick, poet William Cullen Bryant, Henry Hudson, and just for good measure, a Hindu philosophy of conflict resolution. I even learned a different, and likely more correct way to pronounce Sacagawea (“suh-CAH-guh-WEE-uh”).

That’s all admirable, but it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing, right? Thankfully, the Deedle Deedle Dees know how to write and perform a catchy song. The majority of the lyrics and music were composed by frontman Lloyd Miller, seen at right, a.k.a. Ulysses S. Dee. (I’m going to deduct a quarter point for the band members revealing their actual names on the album packaging. Several Ramones are rolling in their graves.) At times, a carnival-esque musical style and talky singing delivery reminded me of Oingo Boingo. Musically, we also get a bit of education, with the genres sometimes matching the content. The Gandhi-mentioning “Ah Ahimsa” employs eastern rhythms. “The Golem” is presented in klezmer style. “Marie Curie” (whose ghostly image graces the album’s cover) brings us an accordion and some French lyrics.

Kids will be singing along, assisted by Miller’s ve-ry clear e-nun-ci-a-tion. Full lyrics are available online (along with background info on songs, and reading suggestions). Of course, the ease of remembering song lyrics is what makes them such a great teaching tool. For example, on “River of Blood,” kids will be laughing and a tad grossed out as they learn the circulatory system. (Though for those of us of a certain age, the song will never touch Potsie Weber’s classic “Pump Your Blood” from Happy Days.)

If I had one bit of advice for the Brooklyn-based Deedle Deedle Dees, it’s that this album is a bit too New York-centric. In separate songs, we learn about Mayor LaGuardia, and Bryant Park, and Dead Horse Bay, and the Hudson River, and the 7 Train. That’s all fine and good for local kids and sing-alongs at NYC school visits, but as the rest of the songs strive to tell us, there’s a whole wide world out there. So look beyond the Camperdown Elm in Prospect Park and “branch” out a little, fellas. (Okay, okay, if I had two pieces of advice, regarding “Phineas Gage Has Something to Tell These People”: A real cool slice of history, but let’s call a permanent moratorium on white-guy educational raps, shall we? It truly would make the planet a better place.)

Strange Dees, Indeed is perfect for mid-to-upper elementary school kids, who may then be inspired to do further research. For teachers covering any of the included topics, playing a song would be an ideal way to kick off a class discussion. At home, parents may find themselves tapping their feet and humming the melodies. My favorite tune here, “a song for Abigail Adams,” is a dreamy, mid-tempo, indie-rock ballad that would work even without the history lesson.

I was in such a kid-friendly mood after listening to this album, I secretly hoped that its producer, Dean Jones, was the same guy who starred in all those awesome ’60s and ’70s live-action Disney flicks. No such luck, but just imagine it: A music-video cameo from Herbie the Love Bug and The Shaggy D.A. ….

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