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November 24, 2005

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Musical Offerings
Local music scene insiders provide reviews

Children unplugged:
A selection of classic toys that teach

Musical Offerings

'TIS THE SEASON, AND THE WELL-CONSIDERED GIFT OF MUSIC is always appreciated (at least by those who like music). With that in mind, the Journal asked a few folks involved in the local music scene in one way or another to discuss some of the albums they like. We recruited a mom who's involved in the Humboldt Folklife Society, a radio pro, a bass player (and former concert promoter) and a drummer/sound man who provided a diverse set of selections. We're thinking about running another batch of reviews before the rest of the holidays arrive; if you think that's a good idea, or perhaps would like to contribute a review of your own, drop a line to thehum@northcoastjournal.com.

For A Decade Of Sin: 11 Years Of Bloodshot Records

For more than a decade the Chicago-based label Bloodshot has been releasing music falling between country, rock, soul and various genres merging those cornerstones. Their 11th anniversary compilation offers 42 unreleased songs by Bloodshot's stable of American roots country artists, including Scott H. Biram, Richard Buckner, Sally Timms, Graham Parker and the Figgs -- as well as friends like Ralph Stanley, My Morning Jacket and Hank Williams III -- offering a generous view and listen into the unfortunately underground existence of traditionalists and pioneers of Americana, alt-country and styles without names.

Where else will you hear a hauntingly nervous rendition of Jane's Addiction's "Ocean Size," as sung by Bobby Bare Jr.? Also haunting yet soaring is Carla Bozulich's "Lonesome Roads," which pulls listeners down their own highways of regrets and disappointments. The true beauty of Bloodshot is their disdain of formula. This country is a mix of cultures and histories, and our American music is reflected in many different experiences. Bloodshot has shown a willingness to provide us with the honest music beneath the surface you never hear on the radio.

-- Mike Donohoe, bass player for The Ravens

Dimanche a Bamako -- Amadou and Mariam

Every once in a while, it happens. You walk into the record store just to look, and the next thing you know, you're listening to the best new music you've heard in a long time. In my case, it was a bright orange CD by Amadou and Mariam (who?), with a sticker on it that said, "Produced by and with Manu Chao," the Clandestino guy. (I don't have enough space in this review to give you the history of this blind couple from Mali, nor of Manu Chao. Google away.)

The album begins with a slow, hypnotic incantation performed by the duo's young son, Mamadou: "M'bifé" draws you in, tuning your ears with guitar, organ and tabla. The next track turns up the heat with a high-tension riff on electric guitar that lays the foundation for a stirring balafon (akin to xylophone) solo. Each song flows into the next with a grace you don't find much anymore. I have played this album a few times at the Arcata Farmers' Market, and each time people ask me what it is, and where to buy it. This CD is a beautiful fusion of Malian Afropop with Manu Chao's unique aural design, and I can't recommend it enough.

-- Mike "Tofu" Schwartz, Farmers' Market soundman, drummer for the Chernobles and Absynth Quintet.

Plans -- Death Cab For Cutie

The last time Death Cab For Cutie played Humboldt, there were maybe 90 people there, if that. A longtime darling of the indie set, they've never really approached large-scale popularity until Plans. Mainstream acceptance may not be in the cards for them, especially with an album like this one, loaded with lyrics of loss and mortality.

But at the end of the day, Plans is a spectacular album. I'm not kidding. I can't stop listening to it. It's melodically interesting and sonically diverse, but it's the gracefully sophisticated lyrics that pull you through the record. "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" is the best song I've heard in a very, very long time. With just an acoustic guitar and vocal, songwriter Ben Gibbard's knack for super-clean melody strikes the balance between hum-ability and unpredictability. Followed by "Your Heart Is an Empty Room," the album picks itself up, dusts off, and moves on. "What Sarah Said" takes place entirely in a hospital, and pegs that unsettling, waiting-room remoteness perfectly.

The music is potent, and definitely sounds better when you're by yourself, better still with headphones when it's raining. But it's a mistake to write DCFC off as another overtly introspective shoe-gazing band. They're on the edge of bringing thoughtful, lyric-driven pop back into the limelight.

-- Mike Dronkers, music and program director of KHUM and K-SLUG.

Saltarello/Magical Tales/Fiddletales -- Jessie Modic

Southern Humboldt musician Jessie Modic has independently written and produced three of the finest storytelling CDs available anywhere: Her Fiddletales, Magical Tales and Saltarello are neatly balanced blends of mystery, magic, humor and music. Each disc features two lengthy tales with Celtic, old-time and classical tunes intermixed between and throughout the stories.

Fiddletales has an Americana feel; Magical Tales is a CD-book of the fairies; her most recent release, Saltarello, features the stories of pirates, selkies and fisherfolk. These recordings offer an introduction to folk music, but more, each is a clever fusion of story and song and imagination that appeals to all ages. I've heard each of her CDs hundreds if not thousands of times, and my children blissfully recite long scenes from every story. The fact that they never wear out on Jessie -- and that we, as parents, never wear out on Jessie either -- is a testament to her amazing gift. Jessie performs locally with Mothers and Daughters and The Prunella Sisters; this fine wit and rich musicality is evident throughout the collection.

-- Maia Cheli-Colando, Humboldt Folk Lifer, shares her writing and photos at www.littlefolktales.org.


Children unplugged:
A selection of classic toys that teach


AT KAYBEE TOYS IN THE BAYSHORE MALL, you can find toys that flash colored lights, talk, vibrate and play songs. But if you want a toy that does none of that, that's harder to find.

With the Christmas season here many parents are shopping for toys their young children will not only like, but that will develop cognitive and motor skills. Educational experts and the toy industry alike say fun and learning can go hand-in-hand. That connection, though, does not have to be battery-powered. Some experts urge parents to de-tech the toys.

"With electronic toys [children] don't figure out how to make their own fun," says Diane Levin, a professor at Wheelock College in Boston and the founder of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood. "The more zaps a toy produces, the more zaps the child needs and the less interest they develop in doing other things."

Electronic toys can captivate young children. And they can teach beneficial skills, like eye-hand coordination or certain types of dexterity. But that can come at a cost -- development of certain skills at an unnaturally early stage and concentration on activity that keeps children sedentary. They can overstimulate some senses, and children will start tuning out noises and lights. Because some toys have electronic sounds that take a while to play out, the child may lose the connection between the cause and the effect -- in other words, he may forget that Three Blind Mice is playing because he pushed the red button. These toys tend to emphasize repetitive play and de-emphasize parent/child interaction, creativity and problem-solving skills. Levin said the best toys not only give a child a problem to solve, but encourage children to constantly discover new problems to solve as they discover new uses for the toy. A classic example: building blocks.

Electronic toys seduce not only children but parents, who like how a whirring, whizzing, toy will entertain their children while they work or do household chores.

But because electronic toys tend to have limited functionality, children soon tire of them and over time they will expect increasingly sophisticated things from each new toy. Long term, Levin says, toy gizmos end up boring children completely. As a result, they stop playing with toys at an earlier age, as they move on to video games and computer entertainment. "The longer we can delay children's dependence on media and electronics the better," Levin says.

Locally, you can find buried among the electronic displays at Target, K-Mart and the Toy Box in Eureka toys that do help children develop cognitive and motor skills, without electronic voices, sirens or Mozart sonatas.

And at Moon's Play and Learn in Eureka, you'd be hard pressed to find toys that require batteries. There, manager Dawn Craghead said the store has been emphasizing non-electronic toys since it opened 25 years ago. "It's our main focus," she said. "We prefer kid power. Kids get so much electronic stimulation."

Craghead said that at Moon's, construction sets are particularly popular with young children. Levin's favorite toy, on the other hand, is Play-Doh, which encourages evolving play -- children figure out how to do different things with it as they themselves mature. She noted that her son's love of Play-Doh evolved into a love of pottery-making when he got older.

Below is a sample list of some toys you can find in local shops that will keep children unplugged, and the skills they help children develop. Most sell for less than $25 each, and many sell for less than $10.

BUILDING BLOCKS: They encourage imaginary play. Children learn to grasp pieces and put them together, which develops finger and hand dexterity. They allow children to play together. At Target, you can get the LEGO 50th Anniversary set of 90 pieces for ages 2-5 for $10.99; a 100-piece set of Lincoln Logs for $19.99; the Melissa and Doug wooden blocks in a crate for $21.99; or the Giant Train, which has blocks that form into a three-car train, for $30 at Michael Olaf Company, available through its catalog or Arcata warehouse.

SHAPE SORTERS: These are usually triangles, squares and stars that children can take out of a similarly shaped hole and put back in. Develops finger and hand dexterity, problem-solving skills, grasping and release of objects. It grows with younger children as they learn to do increasingly complex things with them. Fisher-Price Baby's First Blocks, $6.99 at Target; Tolo Rolling Ball Shape Sorter, $14.98 at the Toy Box

MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS: Encourages a child to use different fingers, and that's a precursor to using tools and writing and drawing skills. Teaches cause and effect. Encourages sensory development. Little Tikes Baby Tap-a-Tune Piano, $15.99, or Bug Tunes Chimes the Caterpillar, $18.99, at Bev's Real Kids; Fisher-Price Toddling Tunes Puppy, $12.99 at Target; First Act Discovery Band in a Bucket, $21.99 at Target.

MAGNA DOODLE: Typically comes with stampers, which help develop the thumb/index finger/middle finger grasp, and gets children to use a stylus wand for beginning tool use. $14.99 at Target.

TOOL KITS: Encourages bilateral hand and rotational movements and imaginary play. Construction Set In a Box or Take-along Took Kit, both by Melissa and Doug, $21.99 and $10.99 at Moon's.

MR. POTATO HEAD: A true classic. Encourages skilled eye-hand coordination, bilateral hand movements, imaginary play, mastering various grasp patterns. Plus, the pieces are stored in his butt! $5.89-$9.99 at Target.

STACKERS: Develops visual and perceptual skills; children learn to differentiate sizes and colors. Develops eye-hand coordination and arm control. Fisher-Price Rock and Stack, $5.54 at Target.

BALL RAMPS: Encourages visual tracking, which is a precursor to reading. IQ Preschool Pound-a-Ball $17.99 at Moon's Learn & Play.

PLAY-DOH AND SILLY PUTTY: Sensory development, hand dexterity, tool use, creativity. Available at most stores.

BIG RUBBER BOUNCY BALLS: Hand and arm control, balance. Gets children to run and chase. Buy several of different colors and they will learn color differentiation. Available at most stores.

Marcy Burstiner is a journalism instructor at Humboldt State University. Debra F. Burstiner is an occupational therapist in Arcata who specializes in the developmental skills of young children.



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