Several years ago, I complained in a column about the lack of music written for children and their parents. The records I found were either so juvenile they condescended to young listeners and bored their parents silly, or were smarmy and self-aware, written more for adults than children.
Enter Tara Scheyer.
Shortly after that column ran, she and the first incarnation of her Mud Puppy Band released the first volume of her HiFi Felix project. The music featured the singalong verses and sense of playful fun appropriate for a project targeted at children, but was musically sophisticated enough to keep parents engaged. It, quite happily, took a lot of the wind out of my argument.
I’ve long harbored similar feelings about Christmas music. I’m a fan of the season, just not the songs that accompany it. It always feels as though they are targeting the lowest common denominator, that each and every tune about sleigh bells or snowmen or babes in a manger opts for the easy arrangement rather than chance alienating the audience by doing something daring. It might be a controversial stance, but I find I prefer silence to Silent Night more often than not. Or I did until last week.
That’s when the Mud Puppies came to the rescue once again.
The group’s third album – HiFi Felix Vol. 3: Felix Navidad – is a Christmas collection and continues the Mud Puppy tradition of broad appeal. As was the case with previous releases, the songs remain child-friendly, a mix of familiar and unfamiliar seasonal songs that young fans can easily grasp, learn and sing along with. But there’s no cutting of musical corners. The arrangements of the songs, some of which are new recordings and others of which have appeared on 12 Bands of Christmas releases, are smart and musically savvy. The Mud Puppies seem to understand that a great Christmas song must first be a great song.
Among the unexpected surprises are a laid-back version of Frosty the Snowman and an uptempo Away in a Manger, a recounting of the first Christmas from the point of view of the manger’s animal residents, and a recasting of the spiritual rave-up Mary Had a Baby as a campfire classic.
While much has been made, and rightfully so, of bandleader Tara Scheyer’s contributions to the Mud Puppy releases, I’m beginning to believe that the secret weapon might be the other charter member of the band, her percussionist husband, Kevin Scheyer.
His work on this record not only propels each song, his uncommon ability to find just the right tools – be it an African drum on one track, a traditional trap on another or what sounds suspiciously like bamboo wind chimes on a third – also is magical. It cuts through every arrangement, elevating the songs and making even the most familiar feel fresh.
And that is the sign of a great Christmas song.
THE LANE COMES OFF THE ROAD. Last Thursday, Black Swan Lane, a band with deep Augusta roots, came off the road after its first full-fledged tour. They played their final show at Sky City and proved to be not just an always-interesting studio project but a very complete live band more than capable of the bringing the great big noise.
While the recorded work recalls late ’80s English acts such as Echo and the Bunnymen, the Charlatans and the Chameleons, with whom they toured, live was another story. Laying down a foundation of buzzsaw guitars and feedback, the live Black Swan Lane seemed more in line with legendarily loud live acts such as the Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine.
It was a welcome surprise and a smart sonic embellishment on the band’s already interesting songs. Historically, this band has not played live a lot and, in the interest of full disclosure, the crowd Thursday was pretty underwhelming. Still, here’s hoping the band will return to Augusta soon – preferably to play for the audience it deserves.