The Cat's Pajamas,
Cool Music for kids
(Howlin' Records, 1999)

Like the best children's books, the best children's music should appeal to both children and adults. The performers should not condescend to children, nor should they be winking broadly at adults over the children's heads. If there is a "lesson," it should be both secondary and unobtrusive. This is a lot harder than it sounds, but Janet Schreiner and Debbie Stahl, the dynamos who are The Cat's Pajamas, pull it off beautifully.

Schreiner and Stahl, longtime music educators, bring sassy verve, crisp and immaculate harmonies, and a range of musical styles to the 14 tracks on Cool Music for Kids. They cover songs by artists such as Tom Chapin, Bill Harley, Connie Kaldor, and John McCutcheon, all musicians who are well acquainted with their Inner Child. Schreiner is responsible for vocals, autoharp and kazoo while Stahl takes on vocals, guitar and bass guitar; Mike Miller, Jim Hamilton and Glenn Barratt back them up on some of the songs.

The first song, "Read to Me" is a jazzy, peppy celebration of the joys of being read to, including a verse about how it's still nice even when you can read for yourself, and Schreiner and Stahl's unflagging exuberance shines through it all. Next is the saga of "Three Little Fishies" -- yes, the version with the "boop boop dittem dottem" chorus, without the baby talk, and it works well. The duo then switches to a Calypso beat for the traditional folk song "Mango Walk" featuring a catchy syncopated melody which my son hummed all day long -- and which I recognized as an orchestra piece from high school over twenty years ago!

The liner notes indicate the universal appeal of the next song "Free Ride." "There isn't a single person who hasn't done this at least once. We can tell from the laughter in the audience every time we sing it." The song is about falling asleep in the car on the way home, late at night, rousing on arrival, but feigning sleep in order to get a "free ride" to bed. Obviously one of my favorites, Tom Chapin's "The Library Song" follows, and again, their enthusiasm is infectious.

"Bellybutton" is a somewhat slower yet saucy rendition of Connie Kaldor's tribute to the navel, and personally, I think a lot more people could do with getting in touch with their bellybuttons. Next up is "How Many People," a song with a driving, hand-clapping beat by John McCutcheon and Si Kahn about just what constitutes a family, concluding "There ain't just one recipe." Now those are family values I can live with. The blues-y "Shoveling" chronicles a snowy day where snow angels and snowmen are perfectly compatible with helping Dad shovel the driveway.

"Waltzing With Bears" chronicles the dilemma of a family who can't keep dear Uncle Walter from his nocturnal ursine cotillions, and it's a lovely, sweet song. Pick up the nearest child and start waltzing. Teddy bears will do. "Heads Shoulders Baby" is a neat alternative to "The Hokey Pokey" and Harry Belafonte's "Turn the World Around" is a shimmering, joyful tribute to the beauty in the world.

Schreiner and Stahl go on safari in "Walking Through the Jungle" (Schreiner dons a pith helmet with a monkey on it for this one in concert), but no one gets hurt -- there's a lot of running away and Tarzan-yelling instead. Bill Harley's "Pirate Song" is an appealing chronicle of the day in the life of a small "pirate" which doesn't sugar-coat reality. The album closes with "Sittin' Down to Eat," a catchy saga about sharing your space.

One of the hallmarks of a good children's album is that an adult can listen to it repeatedly without going nuts. Another is that you don't mind humming the tunes at work. Cool Music For Kids fills those requirements and more. Go to the band's Web site to find out how to get your own copy and learn more about The Cat's Pajamas. If you have an opportunity to see The Cat's Pajamas live, go for it, but if not, Cool Music for Kids is a good alternative. Move over, Raffi.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]