Sunday, July 16, 2006

***dog on fleas***

This is music from the earth, an autobiography of the rocks and dirt, rivers and breezes of the Hudson Valley, somehow miraculously channeled through the musicians known as dog on fleas. On their latest masterpiece, When I Get Little, they work their musical magic and make new originals sound like Reconstruction-era classics, while transforming traditional tunes into vibrant and alive dog on fleas creations. Several years of performing and composing together seem to have made the band an impressively cohesive unit, which is a rare thing in kids' music. It doesn't hurt to have three songwriters and four lead singers in the same group, either.

Once again, dog on fleas call upon the spirit of The Band for songs like the witty "When I Get Little", the I-can't-help-but-dance "The Moon Song" (psst, grownups, listen for references to Bowie, Pink Floyd, and the Who), and the lazy front porch shuffle "Come On Down". Check out the splendorous pastoral rock of "Green Grass of Summer", a song that would certainly make Teenage Fanclub jealous. "Honeybaby" is a sweet and simple ode to a child that cleverly uses Gingerbread Boy imagery, while the rowdy "Ridin' On a Pony" contains some impressively complex vocal gymnastics. And I dare you to try and sit still during the Cajun raveup "Mon Pain Perdu". If Ray Charles went to Memphis and recorded a song about his love of forestry, it would sound like the John Hughes-sung "Trees"; while pianist Debbie Lan says "Peace Will Come" if we practice kindness, love, service, honesty, joy, and unity. David Levine's "Babeo", besides being a precious song, is modern Americana: I suspect you will find this very tune in an American Folk Song compendium somewhere down the line. And "The Coo Coo", well, this song defies categorization. I guarantee you won't hear another tune like it on a kids' album outside of West Africa this year. The album ends with the 4/4, 2/4 rhythm workout "Scratch My Back", in which you can clearly hear the glee in singer Dean Jones' voice. And the whole project is anchored by Chris Cullo's invisible drumming, meaning that it's so well done and integrated into the songs, you don't notice it at first. Go back and listen again for the brilliant drum work.

What makes this album so enjoyable for all ages is the fact that the band weave messages of world brotherhood into the rockin' party ska song and nursery rhyme allegory "What's Behind the Wall"; of the cyclical reality of life (and a political barb) into the tender "Big Black Snake"; of pay-it-forward philosophy into the loping "Give It Away", and of the reliabilty of nature into the riverboat dance tune "The Moon Song", which contains my favorite line: "Forces greater than math control us / We're swimming in a cosmic bath, don't you know it".

This is adult music for children, kids' music for grownups. What ties everything together, though, is a feeling of global kindness and a love of and appreciation for nature and the gifts she has to offer, as well as taking joy in the tiniest details of life. Listen to this album with your kids, and often. They may not get the deeper messages at first but their little intuitions will pick up on the good vibes, on the fact that these musicians and singers have meaningful things to say. But don't think that this is a dour, social commentary-heavy album. In fact, make sure you listen to When I Get Little without your shoes on, else you'll dance right out of 'em.