Back in the anxious days before the arrival of my first son, I remember a work colleague who was already a parent asking me if I had any Dan Zanes albums yet. I didn’t know the name, and she looked at me a little incredulously across the divide that is parenting before smiling and saying, “You’re probably going to playing him a lot. And you’ll be happy about that.”
She was right. Maybe I’m partially biased for having lived in his home turf of Brooklyn for two of those early parenting years, but I think of Zanes as the quintessential modern children’s musician, the archetype who encapsulates everything that sets the genre apart today from years past. Indie cred from a band popular with the generation that’s now knee-deep in parenting? Check. (Zanes was the frontman for the Del Fuegos.) Eclectic guitar-based musical style featuring a dizzying array of guest stars, some of the celebrity variety (Deborah Harry, Natalie Merchant), others simply great musicians? Check. Known for putting on irresistibly charming and audience-friendly stage shows, no matter how large his popularity and the associated venue size grows? Check.
Zanes was one of the first musicians to nail the sweet spot of music for kids that their parents also actually enjoyed listening to. By this time, it’s easy to take him almost for granted among the panoply of artists creating kid tunes with adult-music sounds, from rock to punk to hip-hop. But all along, Zanes and his band of “Friends,” as he labels his band and guest artists each time out, have been putting out CD after CD of great music, expertly mixing traditional songs from the U.S. and around the globe with inspired original compositions.
On his latest, Little Nut Tree, Zanes and company maintain his high standard, with seeming (though surely not actual) effortlessness. In his accustomed laid-back, breezy style, he and his guests—this time including the likes of Sharon Jones and Andrew Bird as well as old Friends Rankin Don/Father Goose and the wonderful Barbara Brousal—offer up sweet songs from Jamaica, Haiti, Tunisia, and the American Populist movement of the 1890s, as well as a number of Zanes’s own original compositions. As always, the arrangements and the playing are top-notch, the mood is upbeat and celebratory, and the overall effect is one big smile.
For me, Little Nut Tree is almost musical comfort food—sort of a continuing representation of the core of my existence as a parent—and I see it has a similar effect on my kids, especially my older son, who’s been listening to Zanes’s music (thanks to that colleague) from the very beginning. And for parents as unfamiliar with the artist as I was way back when: You’re probably going to be playing him a lot. Go ahead and start with this one.
Image courtesy of Dan Zanes & Friends