Sunday, 10 May 2009

From Robbert Bobbert &The Bubble Machine to the Langley Schools Music Project: Children's music for the 21st century

Far from having to sing He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands in school assemblies, a whole new generation is being brought up in the right direction by increasingly imaginative children’s songs.

Nowadays, they get them early - The Shins, Wilco and Motorhead all appear on the Spongebob Squarepants movie soundtrack, and Dressy Bessy, Devo and Frank Black (of all people!) feature in Powerpuff Girls.

Robert Schneider, front man of cult American indie band the Apples in Stereo, is no stranger to children’s music, having composed songs for Powerpuff Girls and the Adventures of Pete and Pete as well as lending an Apples in Stereo song to the Spongebob soundtrack.

From the mid 90s, The Apples in Stereo have been part of the Elephant 6 collective of bands such as Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal, Elf Power and the Olivia Tremor Control, who are known for marrying inventiveness and sonic experimentation to the classic pop sound of bands like the Beatles.

Schneider certainly knows how to write a catchy hook, which is why so many Apples in Stereo songs are used in adverts.

Now, with Robbert Bobbert & the Bubble Machine, he’s been reinvented as a ‘mad professor’ of pop - a Phil Spector for the pre-teens - on the soundtrack to a forthcoming children’s TV series, introducing characters like The Little Duck in polka dot pyjamas and the stomping Mighty Mighty Elephant.

Like children’s meals, Robbert Bobbert & the Bubble Machine offers a mini dose of the full Apples in Stereo experience. The album packs all the necessary goodness into manageable portions, none of the tracks lasting much over two minutes in consideration of children’s attentions spans. We R Superheroes, for example, is essentially an Apples in Stereo song, inspired by the same Beach Boys harmonies that characterise their summer pop.

All the squelchy synths and sound effects you’d expect are there, including the boing-boing of a ball on Gravity, but Robbert Bobbert & the Bubble Machine stays just the right side of cute. Only on Fee Fi Fo, Fee Fo Fum, a faux rap, does the album hit a wrong note.

It’s easy to imagine a pre-school singalong: on Gravity, echoing backing vocals and simple rising melodies explore seasons and the planets. The sleigh bells and wistful female backing vocals of I Love the Animals gently warn against “filling up with hate”, and the album's highlight, Laughing, celebrates the joys of having “found me a friend” over a classic rock riff.

Robbert Bobbert & the Bubble Machine also functions as a beginner’s guide to American popular music: Hey Little Puppy is a brilliant pastiche of teenage rock n roll that condenses the sounds of the West Coast into just under two minutes. Schneider sings “Hey little puppy, do you wanna come home with me?” over a driving, chug chug guitar rhythm and clamouring surf guitar.

The album swells to its conclusion with the lovely lullaby The Tiny Sheep, which isn’t far removed from The Magnetic Fields’ more contemplative moments. Tremolo picking gently buoys Tiny Sheep over a sea of silvery synthesisers like sails sending a great ship slowly into the calm sea of sleep.

While we're on the subject of children's music...

Innocence & Despair by the Langley Schools Music Project

Innocence & Despair is a children’s album in that it was performed by rural Canadian schoolchildren, but its appeal and reach far outweighs that of mere children’s music.

Robbert Bobbert & the Bubble Machine is children’s music pure and simple, written for children and based around children’s concerns, redolent of the golden days of childhood.

Innocence & Despair, on the other hand, has become an enduring cult classic since it was rereleased on CD in 2001, after initially being intended for the ears only of friends and family of the children involved. Made in a school gymnasium between 1976 - 1977 under the supervision of teacher Hans Fenger, a choir of 60 children reinterpret popular hits - with an emphasis on those of the Beach Boys - accompanied by guitar and bass, basic percussion, gamelan instruments, xylophone, bells and chimes.

The album is pervaded by a sense of melancholy and eeriness - particularly during its take on David Bowie’s A Space Oddity, which is overhung by otherworldly sound effects and a creepy bassline - brought about by school days that go by too fast.

The choir of childen, singing all at once, still sound lonely - in that gymnasium, they’re as far away from the outside world as Major Tom on his spaceship.

The songs are sparse, reduced down to their bare essence, and it's because of that I prefer these versions to many of the originals - especially A Space Oddity, which is far more interesting than Bowie’s staid performance.

If there’s a wrong note or something falls out of time it doesn’t matter in the overall scheme of things - life is like that - it has its blips and ups and downs.

Here, the children sing about adult concerns with a world weariness and jadedness that’s beyond their years - from one night stands to the bittersweet love affairs of the Beach Boys’ God Only Knows (read Laura Barton's article about this song from the Guardian Film & Music section), which is sung with resignedness at the end of the phrases like a musical turning down of the mouth.

The children sing with great conviction, crescendoing in and out of the music, breathing life into the real emotions and real life experiences they're still on the cusp of experiencing, that they’re going to find out about sooner or later.

There is despair in the record, but also a purity and it’s a remarkable triumph. They’re not musicians, but you want the children to succeed - when they scramble to hit the high notes on a version of Paul McCartney’s Band on the Run, you really feel their achievement.

Innocence & Despair is exhilarating and desperate, ramshackle as if it’s about to fall apart any second.

A reinterpretation of You’re So Good To Me by the Beach Boys is almost earthshaking - you can imagine a performance rattling the school gym as much as the physical activity for which it was originally intended.

The record leaves the listener with a sense of hope that transcends the time and place in which it was made, though; Innocence & Despair is underpinned by a robust heart, and a clomping, footstamping beat, from the whistling abandon of I’m Into Something Good and scattered handclaps and cheerleader esque chanting of Saturday Night by the Bay City Rollers to the cymbal crashes of I Get Around by the Beach Boys.

The Langley Schools Music Project

Also listen to:

Pete Seeger: Folk Songs for Young People (1959)

The grandfather of American protest music teaches the origins of the country’s folk traditions - including sailor, cowboy and factory songs - claiming ‘the songs of ordinary people like you or me are better than a whole shelf full of history books’. Gentle melodies belie the darker side of American history, from poverty to slavery.

Woody Guthrie: Nursery Days (1958)

He wrote scores of children’s songs during his career, but it’s Riding in My Car, which appears on Nursery Days (or, Songs to Grow On), for which Guthrie is possibly most loved. The skipping rhythm and Guthrie’s brr brr engine and yodelling horn impressions imitate a car better than any other record, children’s or otherwise.

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