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Rockers writing tunes for younger listeners

Joe Heim The Washington Post

Making the switch from writing rock songs to writing kids’ songs came easily to Dan Zanes once he reached this seemingly obvious conclusion: Failed romance and tales of boozing aren’t necessarily the best subjects for children’s music.

“I was just writing about old girlfriends and drinking,” the 44-year-old musician says of his days with the Boston rock band the Del Fuegos and his solo career that followed. “I was running out of ideas. But if you take those two things away, everything opens up.”

And so was born a second musical career for Zanes as troubadour to tots – not to mention grateful parents looking for an antidote to a kiddie music world ruled by the Wiggles, Raffi, Barney and their often irksome ilk.

Zanes and such other artists as They Might Be Giants, who started out rocking for kids their own age, now find themselves coochie-cooing an entirely new demographic.

New Hampshire-native Zanes says his decision to make music for kids was almost an act of desperation. When his now 10-year-old daughter was just a toddler, finding contemporary music for her that he found stimulating or interesting was difficult.

“Everything I heard felt pretty corporate,” he said from his home in New York. “The music for kids that I heard and imagined in my head, I wasn’t able to find in stores.”

Since releasing “Rocket Ship Beach” in 2001, Zanes has put out four more CDs for children (and their parents), as well as a book and “All Around the Kitchen,” his new DVD of videos and concert footage.

As for the Wiggles, well, you won’t hear an unkind word from Zanes about them.

“Hey, I don’t hate anybody,” he says. “They’re probably having just as much fun as I do.”

For John Flansburgh, singer and guitarist with the rock group They Might Be Giants, writing for children is not that different than writing for adults.

“We’re not interested in becoming Raffi,” he says. “We don’t write namby-pamby songs for kids. We just write loud rock songs with full-blooded rhythm.”

The band still plays shows for adult fans, but it is spending an increasing amount of time working on children’s music, including writing the theme songs for “Malcolm in the Middle” and the Disney show “Higglytown Heroes.”

In 2002, TMBG released its first children’s album, “No!,” and followed that up with a book-and-CD set “Bed, Bed, Bed.” Now the duo has just released “Here Come the ABCs,” and not since the Jackson 5 has a group had as much fun with the alphabet.

A surprising number of young indie bands also are skewing way younger. Last month, the White Stripes debuted a video for its song “My Doorbell” – not on MTV, but on Nickelodeon. Shot in black and white, it has the feel of a classic “Little Rascals” variety show.

The songs on these CDs will reward the discerning ears of 3-year-olds and 30-year-olds alike:

•”The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs for Bumpy Wagon Rides,” various artists (Bloodshot, 2002): Alt-country moms and dads will want to take this 26-song CD along on their next road trip. Kelly Hogan’s marvelous pipes grace “Rubber Duckie” and “Senor El Gato,” the Waco Brothers offer “The Fox” and the Asylum Street Spankers tackle “I Am My Own Grandpa.”

But the highlight has to be Alejandro Escovedo’s “Sad and Dreamy (The Big 1-0),” and its magically bittersweet chorus: “I hit the big 1-0/I feel so old/Candy just doesn’t taste as good anymore.”

•”Catch the Moon,” Lisa Loeb and Elizabeth Mitchell (Artemis, 2004): The two indie folk singers – Loeb a solo artist and Mitchell as half of Ida – team up on an exquisite collection of songs. There’s just one original on the disc, but the selection of covers (Bob Dylan’s “New Morning,” Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susanna”) and traditional French, Spanish and Japanese songs make for a wonderful listen.

•”Dimension Mix,” various artists (Eenie Meenie Records, 2005): Music for kids doesn’t have to be straightforward, as evidenced by this tribute to Dimension 5, the adventurous children’s music label created in 1962 by pioneering electronic artist Bruce Haack and lyricist Esther Nelson.

A surreal sonic voyage, this collection includes covers of Haack and Nelson’s songs by Beck, Stereolab, the Apples in Stereo, the Danielson Famile and 14 other bands and artists. A portion of sales goes to Cure Autism Now.

•”For Our Children,” various artists (Kid Rhino): Originally released in 1991 by Disney and reissued for a 10th-anniversary edition, this benefit for pediatric AIDS victims boasts a mother lode of big name artists performing 20 songs. Bob Dylan sounds appropriately croaky on “This Old Man,” Bruce Springsteen has a ball with “Chicken Lips and Lizard Hips,” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider” never will sound the same again after you hear Little Richard’s version.

A follow-up album, “For Our Children Too” (Kid Rhino, 1996), includes songs by Faith Hill, Toni Braxton, Cher and Luther Vandross.

•”Hippity Hop,” various artists (Music for Little People, 1999): Blues singer and multi-instrumentalist Taj Mahal is the driving force behind this collection of 10 songs that updates traditional and contemporary tunes for half-pint hip-hop fans. His version of Sly Stone’s “Everyday People” is a classic.

Other highlights such as Eric Bibb’s “Funky Nursery Rhymes” and Sheila E.’s “Juba Dis and Juba Dat” make this a must-have for any cool kid collection. It also happens to be one of very few hip-hop records that don’t require a parental advisory label.

•”Reggae for Kids Party Box,” various artists (Ras Records, 2003): Never heard “Rasta Row the Boat Ashore” before? What about “School Done Rule?” This four-disc box set collects the popular Reggae for Kids series that includes those songs and others with standout performances by Gregory Isaacs, Yellowman, Bunny Wailer, Eek-A-Mouse and a host of reggae greats.

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