Dan Zanes is a treasure. I’m not sure I actually feel that way, but I’ve always wanted to use that line. Regardless, if Dan Zanes isn’t quite a treasure, he’s the closest thing to it.
Being a stay-at-home dad there are only so many things I can do with my young son before I’m exhausted, bored to tears, or jonesin’ for some Dr. Phil. Thankfully, my son is big on music, and while my wife tries to ruin this by playing ABBA* everytime she changes his diaper, he’s developed quite an ear for tuneful heartfelt singing and songs.
That’s what Dan Zanes is all about: tuneful songs and heartfelt singing. It all started way back in the 80s when he led the Boston band The Del Fuegos. They hit it big in 1987 with their song “I Still Want You,” which led to appearances on MTV and an opening gig for an INXS tour. The Del Fuegos broke up in 1990, and Zanes ventured into a solo career. His debut album “Cool Down Time” in 1995 was a rare gem**. Produced by Mitchell Froom***, “Cool Down Time” was a rootsy effort that touched on themes of love and family and getting tested for HIV. I’ve never grown weary of “Carelessly”, the CD’s best song.
But “Cool Down Time” was to be the last adult-oriented**** disc Zanes would make. In 2000 he released “Rocket Ship Beach” a children’s album, that really was for kids of ages*****. In the disc, Zanes covered classic songs (“Bushel and A Peck”, “Polly Wolly Doodle”) with his own folksy, good-timesy touch. Zanes invited many musician buddies (including Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, Zanes’s daughter and her friends) along for the ride on his ‘rocket ship’******, and the music has the feel of a mulitcultural hoedown.
In 2001, Zanes released “Family Dance”, basically “Rocket Ship Beach”, but not set in a rocket or at the beach. More musician friends (Roseanne Cash, Loudon Wainwright III, Zanes’s daughter and her friends), more good times, and more covers, and this time four originals, one being the best song of all time, “Thrift Shop” with Sandra Bernhard.
Both “Rocket Ship Beach” and “Family Dance” come standard in the Monks’s family car CD player. We love these albums. We know all the words. We have specific dance moves to each songs. We will fight anyone who steps up.
2002, another year and another Dan Zanes record. Released a couple of weeks ago on his own label, “Night Time Music” is more of the delightfully same. Many of the characters from his previous two albums pop up: the Carribean flavored Sandy Girls, Zanes’s childhood friend Barbara Brousal, and the so perpelexing and entertaining that you can’t stop him but only hope to contain him Rankin’ Don as ‘Father Goose’. Rankin’ Don on first listen seems to have not one ounce of musical skill in his body (never has someone who sings so out of tune gone so far), but his enthusiasm for the music is infectious, and his songs are highlights of the disc. Joining in on the fun are more well-known singers, such as Aimee Mann, John Doe, and Lou Reed. It should be said that Reed’s contribution is easily the worst song on the CD. He growl-talks through a embarrassing version of “What a Wonderful World”, a song that to begin with I wouldn’t listen to if it was the last song on Earth. If the world was indeed so “wonderful” wouldn’t it behoove one to not sing like they have shot crank forty-seven-hundred too many times?******* But other songs like, “Pay Me No Money Down” and “Firefly” more than cover for the “Wnderful” lapse, and make “Night Time Music” a worthy effort.
Zanes has really found a niche. Young parents who’ve considered putting their heads in ovens from too much Raffi and Elmo have Zanes to thank. His music is highly listenable, singable, and the best remedy for a backseat tantrum during a traffic jam. If you’re a parent with kids, or even a parent without kids, run out and get one or all of these Zanes’s albums.
*ABBA are so un-hip they’re hip that they’re un-hip again. No longer consider yourself cool and “with it” if you like ABBA, they’re tired and Scandanavian, that should be enough to let them go. If you must listen to them keep it to yourself, don’t boast about it, and by all means never put them on during one of your dinner parties, that’s why I left abruptly the last time. Yes, I lied about my great-aunt Vivian being ill, I left because one can only eat cold shrimp and listen to “Nikita” for so long before they feel compelled to lie about the poor health of an aging family member as reason to get the hell out of there.
**Ok, again, maybe it wasn’t a rare gem, but I love writing lines like that.
***Has Froom ever produced an album not worth listening to? Well, maybe, his own solo effort was too “quirky” and “blah-blah” for my tastes. Still, everything I’ve heard him produce, from Ron Sexsmith to Los Lobos to Suzanne Vega (his ex) more consistently than not knocks my socks off.
****Your mind is in the gutter. Get it out. By “adult-oriented” I mean designed for an adult audience. A regular, fully-clothed, adult audience.
*****You’re frowning. I know, I know. It’s lines like these that I typically frown at too. Just pretend you’re reading Billboard or People. Also pretend that you like me.
******I hate the saying “kids of all ages” but in this case it works, so I’ll leave it in.
*******Maybe he can’t help it. I don’t know. How sad and not wonderful that would be, huh?