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Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Review: Dog Train

Dog Train Cover
I’d never heard of children’s’ book author Sandra Boynton before I heard about Mark Lanegan’s contribution to a just-released book and CD combo. Mark Lanegan--I may have mentioned him before--the man who writes odes to heroin, whose songs explore death and broken relationships in some of the most stark and melancholy ways imaginable.

That Mark Lanegan was going to be singing music for kids (along with a cast of other oddballs). Of course, there was a strange level of excitement in happening upon the book at Barnes and Noble this past weekend. But it was excitement tempered by fear: would his song make children cry or shudder in fear? And, just as disconcerting was the idea of a duet with Weird Al and Kate Winslet. Before I jump into a full review, let me just say that one of my fears was well founded and one completely baseless.

The book doesn’t actually present a story--it’s a collection of songs with corresponding lyrics and illustrations. While I have little room for judging how successful the presentation will be with kids, I can say that it is quite successful with adults. Just sitting on my desk at work, in an office of just ten people, there were three people who said they were going to order the thing--one for his son, another for a friend’s children, and the last for her husband.

If kids like it as much as their parents do, Dog Train should be pretty successful.

The book is broken into three parts with the first being big illustrations and partial lyrics, the second part with music and complete lyrics, and the third comprising a little information about each of the artists. For example, Mark Lanegan, we learn, is an “evocative, infinitely cool singer and songwriter, much sought after for his distinctive low-down voice, and his remarkable vocal and stylistic range.” Which sounds about right if you aren’t going to write about jails and rehab.

As a package, it’s fun stuff. The music is the thing, though, isn’t it?

And the music is good. It starts out with the Spin Doctors’ tongue in cheek “Tantrum” and goes through a series of songs ranging from utterly outrageous to simply beautiful. I found myself giggling during John Ondrasik’s disturbingly catchy “Penguin Lament” when he croons, “Little legs cannot stride so we rock side to side, side to side, side to side, to move. We can’t even fly!”

Just as good are Blues Traveller singing the title song, “Dog Train,” Alison Krauss’ gorgeous “Evermore,” and the light bluegrass “Dragonfire” sung by Rob Hyman and Eric Bazilian. In fact, while the songs trend towards simplicity, this isn’t just dumbed down kid entertainment, and that is all the better. I can’t help but think that some parents will rejoice simply because this is kid-friendly music that they won’t mind playing.

The range of performers is impressive, the laughs genuine, and the sound quality good.

But what about Mark Lanegan and the strange Weird Al/Kate Winslet pairing?

The duet, “I Need a Nap,” is out of place on this disk. It comes across as a parody of Disney movie music--and that isn’t meant in the nicest possible way. The rest of the songs are funny and original with, perhaps, the exception of “Boring Song” by Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, which is short and good-natured where “I Need a Nap” is merely tedious. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Mark Lanegan, if he weren’t covered in some pretty odd tattoos, could probably moonlight singing kids’ songs. His voice is warm and light, his tone is wry but not overdone, and the song (as, I believe all of them were, written by Sandra Boynton) is charming. It’s a bluesy tale of a bear and his sneakers--an addictive song with a funny punch line.

I bought the CD because I’m a completeist, but I was happily surprised by the music and the humor. I don’t know that I would recommend it to any adult who has overdosed on irony or cynicism--the urge to sneer would be too great--but for any grown-up who wants their children to listen to good music or who can enjoy kid flicks unashamedly, this could be a quality Christmas gift this holiday season.

Kid friendly, Zomby approved.

Visit Boynton’s Web site.

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