Review: Ukulele Jim – Ukulele Jim’s Jumping Flea Circus (Snake Oil, 2010)
Albums written and recorded especially for young children are the diciest of propositions for parents. Repeated requests (nay, commands) of “play it again” can soon become torture to older ears. There are precious few records in the world that you can listen to over and over (and over and over), and even fewer that will entertain both toddler and adult. James Andrew “Ukulele Jim” Clark has found a winning formula in combining clever original songs, well-weathered favorites of the playground set, and a few left-field selections that fit nicely in the mix. Central to Clark’s appeal is his inviting singing voice and the ukulele’s unique ability to create a friendly, relaxing mood anywhere, anytime.
The album opens with the title song’s brilliant evocation of a magical jumping flea circus. Instrumentalist Ben Ticehurst adds musical flair with his tuba, organ and celesta, and Clark’s Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks styled flea voices are very cute. But it’s the cleverness of his imagery that will amaze and astound. For one night only, a tiny-top tent houses a ukulele-playing flea standing upon a thimble as he presents his singing and dancing brethren, a high wire centipede act, acrobat grasshoppers jumping through rings of fire, pill bug canon balls, and an all-beetle band. The circus returns later in the album to reprise a lullaby coda of crickets accompanying the circus’ exit and dreams of its return.
Clark provides his young audience many opportunities to stretch their imaginations, wondering what they’ll be when they grow up, picturing dream worlds, selecting super-powers, and providing a happy ending for the anthropomorphic horn of “The Lonely Little Saxophone.” Clark’s rendition of “Wheels on the Bus” manages to swing a bit mid-song, and with “Rock a Bye Baby” he marries the classic lullaby (three distinct verses, plus refrain!) to the bass line and piano vamp of the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La Da.” Ticehurst adds lovely strings and glockenspiel to “Little Star,” and the exotica classic “Yellow Bird” (famously recorded by vibraphone master Arthur Lyman) provides an unexpected treat from the past.
The disc winds down with the restful “Cowboy Song” which might help ease children to bed if not for the litany of excuses cataloged in “The Bedtime Blues.” As a bonus, and just in time for the holiday season, the disc closes with an original Christmas song. The vocal accompaniment of his young twins will remind you of the banter between Alvin and Dave Seville, though here the children scold the parent when his imagination strays. Clark will delight children with his singing and songs, and he thankfully avoids the pitfalls that make such albums a trial for parents.