By Erik Missio
Among music nerds, there's always discussion about what albums are the best to come out of this country. I own Joni Mitchell's Blue
and the Band's Music from the Big Pink
on vinyl. I'm a Neil Young neophyte, but I can sing along (terribly) to every note on Rufus Wainwright's debut, and I know my Arcade Fire, Hip and Leonard Cohen. Still, if I had to make a list of my favourite Canuck records of all time, the Juno-winning Smorgasbord
would make the cut.
Never heard of it? Until a few months ago, neither had I. It's the 1979 sophomore release from Sharon Hampson, Lois Lillenstein and Bram Morrison - the trio that went on to do CBC's The Elephant Show
in the 1980s, and became the soundtrack of my childhood. Thirty years later, they're beginning to play the same role for my three-year-old daughter, L.
Some background - I didn't like a lot of the children's music CDs finding their way to our car stereo. The lyrics were overly cutesy, the music uninspiring, the bubbly singing cringe-inducing, but of course
my daughter loved them. L would listen to icky renditions of Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?
and Little Rabbit Foo Foo
and Where is Thumbkin?
on repeat while I tried not to rip my ears off.
Last year, I decided to see if my childhood idols could save me.
After all, they had sung those same songs, but did it without being saccharine. It had been decades since I had listened to Sharon, Lois and Bram, and I was initially hesitant - I ruined a lot of childhood favourites by revisiting them as an adult. I was worried my love for The Elephant Show
was based in nostalgia, rather than taste.
Nope. Clearly, seven-year-old Erik knew his stuff. It was fantastic. More importantly, L loved it. Her favourites were Caballito Blanco
, which allowed her to speak Spanish like her Argentine abuelitos, and Skinnamarink
, which she adopted as a personal anthem. (The song was such an obsession, I became an expert on its many YouTube incarnations.)
There's something about Sharon, Lois and Bram's singing style - not only the harmonies, but also the way they tended to rely on their natural voices, rather than cartoonish caricatures - that appeals to kids. Yes, most of the songs are standards, but the backing instrumentation feels organic and the vocal arrangements fresh. L began carting around their greatest hits CD like it was a teddy; she'd get super-excited whenever she'd hear one of their songs pop up on the Kids' CBC online radio music stream
And then, only a few months ago, I stumbled upon Smorgasbord
on vinyl. L has CDs and an mp3 player, but I liked the idea of her having a record. I wanted her to see how it's placed on the turntable with the needle lowered. Besides, I thought, it's Sharon, Lois and Bram. It's probably good.
The record is more than good; it's bonafide great. Produced by a guy named Bill Usher, it's unlike any children's album I've ever heard, thanks to its sheer range of styles and genres. With its quick sonic shifts and weird cameos, it feels like a hip-hop mixtape at times.
Opening with the disco-rock one-two punch of Peanut Butter
and Head 'n' Shoulders, Baby
must have been a shift from the traditional folk stylings of a lot of the children's music of that time. There's the calypso of the Hold 'em, Joe
Belafonte cover, the call-and-response funk of Did You Feed My Cow?
and the glorious kitchen-party anarchy of Newfoundland Jig Medley
The record is also littered with bizarrely wonderful digressions: schoolyard songs sung by kids, and what sounds like a pair of old English drinking ditties, belted out by the producer's father (?) and grandfather (!).
Even without my hard sell, L instantly loved these songs, from the Tin Pan Alley of A, You're Adorable
to the title track's paean to culinary multiculturalism. Hearing your three-year-old belt out a Ghanaian echo song like Che Che Koolay
or watching her burst into punkish dancing during Sur le Pont d'Avignon
is pretty much the best thing ever.
I love this album, unironically and unapologetically, and I'm absolutely thrilled L loves it, too. The best part is, Sharon, Lois and Bram are still around. They even have an iPhone/iPad app
, and did a guest post on CBC Parents
, which means I'm technically their co-worker. (My inner child's mind is blown.) Also, a quick Wikipedia search suggests that while Lois is retired, Sharon and Bram still occasionally tour. I now have a new mission to make them L's first concert.
We'll be the ones in the front row, singing our lungs out.
||Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock 'n' roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no-ish hair and edits technical articles. He and his wife are collaborating on a three-year-old girl who may already be smarter than both of them. He received his MA in Journalism from the University of Western Ontario.
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