Wednesday, March 12, 2008

***Gunnar Madsen***

Well, I guess I made a donkey out of both of us, because I assumed this guy was just another goofy, over-the-top kids' performer, judging by his past kids' album covers and song titles. BOY, WAS I WRONG! I'm Growing has to be the most inventive, unique children's music CD of the year, and a majority of the magic was achieved using nothing but voices and piano.

Gunnar Madsen is a seasoned songwriting veteran, with several grownup CDs and kids' albums under his belt. He founded the a cappella group The Bobs in the early '80s (thus the abundance of voices and vocal percussion on I'm Growing), and has written music for theater, film, television, and video games. He also wrote the score for the musical The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World, and produced the documentary Svetlana Village. And all of this experience informs the work on I'm Growing.

Man, where to begin with the highlights: The explosion of vocals on the title track, the Harry Nilsson dead ringer "Walkin' Back to Texas", the Todd Rundgren-like "Simple", or the 7/8 time better-than-anything-on-the-Lion-King-soundtrack "Sun Comes Up". "I Feel a Waltz Coming On" is the best anti-waltz waltz you'll ever hear; and "Raise Your Voices", well, could be a Polyphonic Spree song, could be a tune from Godspell ... at any rate, it's a rousing hymn to the power of love.

And then there's the ridiculous but amazing "Mozart's at the Window", Madsen's lyrical take on Mozart's 40th symphony; the witty words of "Pumpkin Hair" and "Library Party"; the kitty chorus of "There's a Bowl of Milk in the Moonlight" (pair that one with Kevin Henkes' Kitten's First Full Moon); and Madsen's almost mantra-like version of "Shenandoah".

To fully appreciate and comprehend the music on I'm Growing you should read Gunnar's bio and the album's liner notes ... the songs will make that much more sense. It wouldn't matter to a kid, of course, as this is simply a solid collection of great songs, but it's incredibly interesting to see how the course of Madsen's life affected the development of these particular tunes: Madsen didn't simply make up and throw together a bunch of songs just to have a kids' album on the market. You'd find out, for example, that "Raise Your Voices" and "I Feel a Waltz Coming On" are from a musical-in-progress; that "Cutest Little Guy" is Madsen's homage to the songwriting styles of Sammy Cahn and Roger Miller; and that Madsen is replying to Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) the Dock of the Bay" with "Walkin' Back to Texas".

Brilliant arrangements and performances. Period. And funny! And fun! And entertaining for everyone in the family! What more could a kid and his grownups want?