Joe Ross & Friends,
The Crazy Zoo: An Animal Songfest
(Zephyr, 2000)

Some performers do well in a live setting but cannot translate that performance energy to a studio recording. That, I suspect, is the case with The Crazy Zoo.

Joe Ross provides vocals, guitar, upright bass and synthesizer for the album. Joining him are Bryan Bowers (autoharp, mandocello), Linda Danielson (fiddle), Bob Evoniuk (harmony vocals, resonator guitar), Dean Magraw (guitar), Dan Mazer (banjo), Janet Naylor (Celtic harp), Peter Ostroushko (mandolin) and Radim Zenkl (mandolin, bouzouki, low whistle).

The title track, an original piece by Ross, mixes various animals into new varieties -- kangarich, monkeroo, elezelle and so on -- and it's a song I'm sure keeps very young audiences laughing with delight. Other songs sure to please a crowd of wee folk include the traditionals "Six Little Ducks," "Old Rattler," "Crawdad," "Turkey in the Straw," "The Fox" and "The Tale of a Bear," plus a cover of Burl Ives' "Goober Peas," all of which have good sing-along potential.

Many of these songs probably go over better live than they do on this CD -- largely because they pale in comparison to versions we all know and love. Harry S. Miller's "The Cat Came Back" (which seems strangely sanitized in this version and which goes out of its way to break rhythms and rhyme schemes) falls flat when compared to my childhood memories. Shel Silverstein's "The Unicorn" was made famous by the Irish Rovers, and this remake lacks luster. Also lackluster in comparison to the originals are Ives' "The Sow Took the Measles," Raffi's "Baby Beluga" and "Puff the Magic Dragon," the beloved Peter, Paul & Mary song. The less said about the strained, bluegrassy interpretation of Three Dog Night's "Joy to the World," which ends the album, the better.

The recording's few instrumental tracks, mostly bluegrass in nature, are extremely short and seem more like afterthoughts than integral parts of the album. A few very short cuts were apparently included simply to advertise a solo album by Zenkl, but these abbreviated versions do not stand alone well.

"Touch the Earth," a Ross original sung from a Native American perspective, is well-intentioned but poorly executed. Ross' voice sounds dry and disinterested as he sings about the destruction wrought by European settlers (apparently, the settlers didn't hunt animals close to extinction so much as "oppress" them). Some lines are awkwardly constructed, and the final verse -- which tells us that plowing the ground for crops is "to take a knife and tear our Mother's breast" -- leaves me wondering if Ross is proposing mass starvation as his final solution. I'm all for instilling a respect for nature in children, but let's not be ridiculous.

On the plus side, a portion of The Crazy Zoo sales support the Humane Society. However, I'd save the $15 purchase price and send the society $5 instead -- you'll save $10, I suspect they'll get more, and you won't have to listen to this CD.

I'm sure Ross and friends are a big hit at elementary school assemblies and community concerts. But the CD lacks the spark of a live performance and suffers for it.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 21 July 2001

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