- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 9, 2006

Parents with strong musical preferences inevitably face the dilemma of whether and how aggressively to try to influence the musical preferences of their children.

“Isn’t there something unsavory in the idea of your kid as a kind of tabula rasa for you to overwrite with your tastes? Less a child than a malleable Mini-Me?” observed New York magazine’s Adam Sternbergh recently in an unflattering taxonomy of indie-yuppie culture.

The profile demonstrated a couple of things. First, getting your highly impressionable children to like, say, the Strokes or Wilco is quite easy. Second, it’s obnoxious.

Knowing this, many parents grin and bear “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” “Sesame Street” jingles and the Wiggles, concluding, reasonably, that there’s no good reason to open the floodgates of popular culture any earlier than necessary.

A few years ago, though, Jim Powers, a record producer and founder of Chicago-based Minty Fresh Records, a ground-floor supporter of artists including Liz Phair, Cowboy Junkies and Veruca Salt, had a son and instantly became aware of the lack of listenable children’s music.

Why, he wondered, when there was a bewilderingly precise array of choices available to pop-culture consumers, wasn’t there something better? Why could parents more than tolerate — actually enjoy — movies such as “Toy Story” and “Shrek” but have no comparable audio alternative on the ride home?

Mr. Powers, formerly a major-label talent scout, hatched the idea of starting a children’s music imprint and promptly went searching for the right artist to bring it off.

One night, subbing for his wife, he took son Brendan to Chicago’s legendary Old Town School of Folk Music, where children can hear live music and take lessons. “There are five moms with kids sitting in their laps, and in comes this guy with a guitar,” Mr. Powers recalls. “He plays some songs, the kids are clapping along, and the parents are moving along, too. I thought, ‘That was a catchy song. I don’t think I’ve heard that before.’ ”

Intrigued, he volunteered to his wife, “Let me take Brendan to class again.”

The performer, it turned out, was Ralph Covert, and the material was original — and, Mr. Powers believed, a perfect vehicle for what would become the offshoot label Mini Fresh Records.

Mr. Covert was briefly reluctant to take the plunge into the children’s music market — he had fronted, and still periodically reunites, a successful Chicago indie-pop band called, ironically in retrospect, the Bad Examples — but Mr. Covert soon accepted Mr. Powers’ offer to headline the new label.

Ralph’s World, as the project came to be dubbed, debuted in 2001; five more discs followed, and Disney Sound, a division of Walt Disney Records, recently purchased Mr. Covert’s Mini Fresh catalog. In addition to steady touring, Mr. Covert also recorded a series of videos that see regular rotation on the Disney Channel’s slate of “Playhouse Disney” morning programs, exposing him to a potentially huge audience of parents and children.

Mr. Covert found himself on the front end of a not-very-crowded niche of children-friendly indie-rockers that includes the esteemed nerd-rock duo They Might Be Giants, cow-punk pioneer Jason Ringenberg and ex-Del Fuegos frontman Dan Zanes, whose “Catch That Train!” album greets many an indie-yuppie parent in the CD racks at Starbucks Coffee.

As movies and television have become equally fertile ground for many actors, these artists easily move between the adult and children’s music markets, as surfer-songwriter Jack Johnson proved earlier this year with his No. 1 “Curious George: Sing-a-Longs and Lullabies” soundtrack.

Mr. Covert admits that playing for children wasn’t in his career-track crystal ball, but it’s no radical departure, either. “I don’t think what I’m doing now, at the most fundamental level, is different from what I’ve been doing for most of my life. I’m just trying to make great records,” he says.

“When I wrote my first song at age 8, I wasn’t writing for 22-year-olds,” Mr. Covert, 44, continues. “I was just listening to Beatles records and Steely Dan records and Paul Simon records. When I was a teenager, I couldn’t make money mowing lawns because I had allergies. So I ended up making all my pocket money baby-sitting.

“In a strange way,” he jokes, “I’ve gone nowhere in my musical career because I’m still in the same place.”

Mr. Covert, father of 11-year-old Fiona, has that rare McCartney songwriting gene that manifests itself in a seemingly boundless output of great melodies; the lyrics, often quirkily imaginative, are wholesome without being too didactic. Songs like “Riding With No Hands” and “Hideaway” are almost startlingly introspective. “Dance Around” is as infectious and ingeniously arranged as anything you’re likely to hear on mainstream rock radio.

Much as good plotting is dismissed by literary critics as a crutch for midcult genre novels, melody writing too often is taken for granted or relegated to mere “pop” by rock critics. One of the happy virtues of children’s music, Mr. Powers says, is that “you can be completely unapologetic” about writing a catchy tune.

Children’s fledgling sense of aesthetics — otherwise known as attention span — delivers verdicts that are, in my observation, instant, fierce and irreversible. Under these circumstances, Mr. Covert says, you need to do “a darn good job of making sure there’s a reason for a song to stick around.”

Ralph’s World songs typically flash by in two minutes — and yet they’re full of compelling little motifs.

If you haven’t guessed yet, the job of coming up with songs that appeal equally to parents and children is extremely tough; there’s a reason why most singer-songwriters favor the stylistic shelter of confessional narratives.

Paul Westerberg wrote the bulk of the soundtrack to Disney’s most recent animated feature “Open Season,” just the latest signal of the increasing demand for nontraditional children’s music. (Beyonce Knowles’ father and manager, Matthew Knowles, is readying two volumes of “Kids Rap Radio” this month, while Baby Rock Records has turned the likes of Metallica and Radiohead into instrumental lullabies. Alt-pop rocker Jason Falkner did something similar, quite brilliantly, with his 2001 release “Bedtime With the Beatles.”)

Take it from a Replacements junkie whose son sings “Kiss Me on the Bus” as readily as he does “Wheels on the Bus”: As much as I appreciate the wordplay of a title like “The Right to Arm Bears,” the soundtrack is a misconceived flop as far as children’s rock goes. Try explaining the line “Who’s going to eat you when you’re dead?” to a toddler.

Even indie children’s rockers should finally try to preserve the thing that parents most cherish about their tykes — their innocence.

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