It Runs in the Family

Sunny, optimistic songs from a talented fourth-generation musician

Lighthouse Records, 1997
$10 (available on cassette only)
Phone/mail order only: (800) 897-4595 ($2 shipping)

Vincent is a musically literate musician who brings his literacy with him into his folk/pop children's music. Brand New Day includes a number of distinct musical styles, most of them convincingly evoked, and the sound is engineered so that every line is clearly audible--a plus, since the arrangements are musically interesting and well thought out. Vincent's vocal delivery is straightforward and honest, without the condescension that sometimes stalks children's performers; as my wife put it, "he doesn't sound like his eyebrows are up too high."

The title song, with its infectious Reggae beat, sets the tone for this sunny little album, as well as supplying its recurrent theme: the idea of new possibilities and beginnings. Vincent, four generations of whose relatives appear on the recording, is evidently blessed in the family department, and seems to want to share that joy with the listener.

He's most effective when he does just that; when he goes more overtly after a specific message, it doesn't work as well. The Latin-flavored "Girls/Boys Can Do Anything," despite its salsa-style trumpets and catchy melody, falls flat. Hearing a boy sing "I know lots about ballet,/and I baked brownies yesterday" may or might not effect a change in young attitudes about gender, but it's not convincing lyric-writing.

A comparison of the album's two biographical songs--"Martin (Luther King) Had a Dream" and "Amelia" (about Amelia Earhart)--illustrates this point further. Though both begin simply and build to a carefully wrought climax with horns and synth strings, it's the latter that sticks in one's mind. Its melody is more memorable, and there is a greater passion to the song overall. One suspects this is because it was a labor of love written out of a genuine interest in the aviator, whereas the former has all the earmarks of a class assignment on civil rights. Besides, I've never heard a kid refer to the great civil rights leader as "Martin" rather than "Dr. King."

This is one of a few pieces of evidence in Vincent's recording that feels out of touch with all but a small, suburban segment of American kid-dom. His "Golden Rule Rap," for instance, is not really a rap at all, but a 1940s-vintage proto-rap, with a high-hat ride and a walking bass-line, like the big bands used to do. (Think "Pennsylvania 6-5000.") Not that it's bad--although Vincent does attempt to include too many lessons in it--but it's just not a rap.

Another example is "My Mother's Wedding Day," a charming, "Tennesee-Waltzy" little ballad about a mom who beguiles away a rainy afternoon by taking down her wedding album and sharing pictures and stories with her kids. The child's-eye view includes all the Family Circus-style turns: how skinny Dad was, how much hair Uncle Phil had, what funny glasses Grandma was wearing, and how come I wasn't there? Yes, it has a pretty tune, and leaves one all warm and fuzzy--so long as one's parents actually are married and could afford bow ties and a white dress.

Having said all that, one seems to be slamming Vincent for trying--on the one hand, he addresses kids who are outside his purview, and on the other, he celebrates his own happy milieu by holding it up in song, to provide a healthy example of happy family life. Certainly "My Mother's Wedding Day" would stick out less if "Martin Had a Dream" were more convincing, and if "Golden Rule Rap" were really a rap. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is to stick to what one does well.

And Vincent does some things very well. "We Are a Circle," for instance, is unusually musically ambitious among kid's songs, and it comes off stirringly. At the end, the two verses and the refrain are all sung simultaneously, in a way reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim's musicals. Members of the artist's family, from great-grandparents to a great-grandkid, then read the chorus-lyric by turns for a heart-tugging finish. (This is a good example of how sentiment need only come off as corny if it's allowed to degenerate into sentimentality, or if it would substitute for actual substance.)

My favorite song is "Lighthouse (Shine on Me.") An Anglo-American neo-folksong in the style of Gordon Bok or Gordon Lightfoot; it's one of the strongest things on the album, and one of several places where an obliquely prosecuted Christian mission seems to shine through.

The album closes with Vincent's tribute to his mother. "Special One"--arranged for piano, panpipes, cello, horn, and synth strings--is one of the most musically impressive things on the recording, and puts the message of filial love across without finger-wagging or guilt-tripping. With its strong music and its very personal lyric, this song allows Vincent to finish with what he does best.

 

Scott Robinson is a frequent contributor of music reviews for Minnesota Parent.

 
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