Friday, March 20, 2009

Billy Jonas - Happy Accidents


Billy Jonas: Who‘s Gonna Make Our Music?

Billy Jonas: One Tutu Too Many

Of all the artists I’ve reviewed here to this point, Billy Jonas is the first one I was familiar with before receiving the new album. In particular, my family and I had the great pleasure of attending one of Jonas’ family shows. Yes, you heard that right. This week, Oliver di Place takes on the dreaded subject of kid’s music.

My standards for judging kid’s music must be different from the norm. First of all, mine is not the most important opinion here. What do my five-year old son and thirteen-year old daughter think? If they don’t like it, it’s not good kid’s music. Then and only then do my views become relevant. But it’s still not good kid’s music if they never get to hear it, because I can’t stand it. So the music must offer something to keep the adults interested as well. This is a very difficult balance to achieve.

When we saw Billy Jonas perform, he opened his show with a brief explanation of his strange percussion instruments. Jonas uses a set of plastic containers in various sizes from small to huge, and he also keeps an acoustic guitar on stage for later in the show. He explained quickly that he wanted us, the audience, to find car keys to shake, or slap on ourselves (my preference), or some other means of making a beat. He also wanted us to sing along as soon as we knew the words. As Jonas put it, he wants the audience to join the band. And we did. There was none of the embarrassment that sometimes follows when a musician asks the audience to sing along. And the place rocked!

Happy Accidents opens with Eyes Wide Open; this is just the way Jonas probably opens shows on the current tour. The song is mostly percussion and voice, and it is clearly a piece that Jonas hears in his head with the audience included. The background vocals serve as a guide to where to sing along at the next show. But even if you never see a Billy Jonas show, this is a dive-right-in, high energy open, and a good listen.

Who’s Gonna Make Our Music? is a statement of purpose. The song clearly states Jonas’ musical philosophy of audience involvement. I’m surprised that Jonas only just thought of this song. The song is arranged for a full band, and is another high energy track.

From here, Jonas mostly keeps the energy high, sprinkling in an occasional slow number to make the overall listening experience more interesting. The slower numbers tend to have the greatest appeal for adult listeners, but the subject matter is also completely appropriate for the kids as well, of course. In these slow numbers, Jonas sings optimistically, but never cloyingly, about the state of the world.

There are also some mid-tempo numbers, which involve inspired nonsense to tickle the funny bones of adults and kids alike. One Tutu Too Many is a fine example.

Throughout, Jonas demonstrates a mastery of the art of pacing. He knows how to start with a bang, when to take it down a bit, and how to build it back up.

The album concludes with the Wake Up Suite. This can be considered as five short songs, or as a medley. The five parts tell of a boy’s morning rituals, from getting up to leaving the house for school. The musical styles change for each part of the suite, and the tempos shift as well. But somehow, the whole thing hangs together, and takes the album out on a high note.

Just a few final words. As an adult listener, I would prefer fewer kid vocals on the album. And one song, What Kind of Dog Are You? is a sequel to What Kind of Cat Are You?, the title track of an earlier album; the new song strikes me as fun, but unnecessary. But these are minor complaints. My kids love this album. And I want to point out one more standout track, which has quickly become a favorite among the adults; Hollow Bamboo is evidently a traditional song from Bali, rendered here in English, and it is just beautiful.