Hilary James
& Simon Mayor,
A Big Surprise
(Acoustics, 1998)

Hilary James and Simon Mayor have an established reputation for quality music for children as evidenced by their six-year stint as presenters of BBC Radio for Schools. One of their Musical Mystery Tour series, A Big Surprise uses the framework of two friends on a bicycle ride through the country as a framework for the songs, helped along with brief sketches. Except for one traditional tune, all the songs are written by James and Mayor.

The CD starts off with Mayor making a phone call ... to the queen? Queen bee, that is, as he sings "If You Want to Talk to a Bee." (Give her a buzz, of course.) It's a silly song that sets the tone for the album. The song is followed by a brief sketch in which James invites Mayor for a bike ride in the country, to which he reluctantly agrees.

"My Bike" extolls the joys -- and risks -- of bicycle riding. The pair agree to take a break under a tree in the middle of a field, but Mayor bumps his head, twists his ankle, then ruins his trousers when he apparently sits in a cow patty. (This may not be an entirely bad thing, since he ruined a pair of pink paisley flare pants.) Guest singer Professor Andrew Ellis Baum takes the lead for the cautionary title track "A Big Surprise," a bouncy rock 'n' roll tune.

We learn that sheep are sleepy because they're too warm in "Sleepy Sheep," a cross between a tongue twister and a lullaby, followed by "Bertie the Bandit," a pseudo-mariachi song about an utterly inept bandit armed only with a pea-shooter. Mayor demonstrates his virtuosity on the mandolin with "Toss the Pancake," a nifty happy toe-tapping tune. "Will a Willow" explores why the willow weeps -- there are some pretty bad puns in the sketch just preceding this -- and "The Scarecrow Song" tells the story of a somber scarecrow won over by persistence. Mayor picks up his mandolin again for "The Trumpet Hornpipe," which is a traditional tune, but in this instance it is plagued with curious additions.

The two dig for buried treasure at the beach, singing about what you can find on the beach in "Bobbed in on the Tide," including some interesting messages in equally interesting bottles. A recitation about King Canute, the monarch who tried (unsuccessfully) to make the tide go back in "King Canute at Cleethorpes." In this version, he has just cause -- he wants to protect a sand castle. The CD wraps up with "The Road to Banbury," a sweet and swinging song that catches the ear and sounds like a folk song from childhood.

It's obvious that James and Mayor have respect for their audience; the songs and sketches do not condescend and are well-written musically with thoughtful and clever lyrics. James has a sweet, clear voice; Mayor's is more heavily accented, but still pleasant and well suited to the humorous turns. Mayor also plays an astonishing array of instruments: acoustic and electric bass guitars, violin, mandolin, mandola, manocello, tin whistle, banjo, ukelele and xylophone. The sketches are a little difficult to hear and understand, but they are so brief that it won't matter if you don't get it the first time around, and they do tie the songs together. Give you and your favorite young listener A Big Surprise. You won't be sorry!

[ by Donna Scanlon ]