Sting. Gene Simmons. Add to the list of schoolteachers-turned-star-musicians the kids’-music trio known as Recess Monkey. Okay, so maybe this Seattle-based group isn’t as well-known as those other two, but to my mind they’re among the true superstars of the kid-music genre, right up there with household names like Dan Zanes.
It’s also a bit incorrect of me to use the word turned, since guitarist/lead vocalist Drew Holloway, bassist/pianist Jack Forman, and drummer Daron Henry are all still teachers; somehow they find the time to write and produce an album a year and even go on occasional tours on the side. (For their explanation of how that works, see my interview with them from earlier this week.) Even more remarkable is that what started out as an excellent kids’ band back in the mid-2000s has gotten better and better with each CD. Their latest, Flying!, is one of the four or five most musically proficient children’s albums I’ve heard.
By this point in their recording career, Recess Monkey has established its own confident sound, basically power pop with a strong 1980s new-wave bent (think the Cars, Joe Jackson, and XTC, though no single influence dominates). Their confidence level is audible, and with good reason—they’re superb musicians, they know how to write a hook, and when they branch out into new territory—as they do several times on Flying!, swerving assuredly into Latin music on “Covered in Band Aids,” for instance—they do so expertly, the results less pastiche than just Recess Monkey songs with a twist. These are songs you find yourself humming in the shower before remembering they’re for kids—and then keep on humming even after you do.
Of course, they are aimed at kids, with subject matter like Band-Aids, invisible friends, and a beloved pet fish (actually, that last one might not have been out of bounds for some adult acts of the ’80s). But even lyrically these guys stand apart, finding subtly sophisticated angles and points of view for their songwriting—drawing, I suspect, on their jobs as grade-school teachers for a lot of that perspective. (“Bravest Kid in the World” in particular is one of the deeper explorations of what kids go through when they’re about to do something wrong you’ll find in a pop song.) It doesn’t hurt that Holloway’s vocals on these lyrics is top-notch; powerful, versatile, and always compelling, he gets my family’s vote as the best vocalist in kids’ music today.
What I’m trying to say here—beyond, of course, that you should pick up Flying! at your first opportunity—is that Recess Monkey is one of those rare kids’ bands that even parents who don’t much care for kids’ bands (you know who you are) may want to give a try. And parents who do, and aren’t already aware of this still-not-quite-as-famous-as-the-Police band—well, you’ll want to go get the whole back catalog.
Portrait: Kevin Fry
Album cover above courtesy of Recess Monkey
From You Know, For Kids