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Sharon, Lois and Bram’s ‘Smorgasbord’: One of Canada’s Best Albums?

Oct 7, 2019

Editor's note: This story was written on March 19, 2013 prior to Lois Lillenstein's passing on April 22, 2015.

Among music nerds, there's always discussion about which albums are Canada's best. I own Joni Mitchell's Blue and the Band's Music from 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 Canadian 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, a show with music that became the soundtrack of my youth. 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 and 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. Yes, most of the songs are standards, but the backing instrumentation feels organic and the vocal arrangements are 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 online.

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", Smorgasbord 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. 

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no hair and works in communications. He and his wife are the proud parents of a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, both of whom are pretty great. He received his MA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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