Click to hear: “The Pink Whale”
Too often, the sounds and images fed to kids through television and movies take on a mindless and obtuse tone that seems, above all, unchallenging. The only firm standards in place for children’s media relate to how educational or “appropriate” something may be, with little attention paid to whether or not the stuff they zone out on is actually any good.
Maine artist and musician Shana Barry, former singer of the acclaimed slowcore band Seekonk (and wife of Bollard columnist Crash Barry), has taken it upon herself to challenge those weak standards with her new collection of sweet, folky children’s songs, A Pink Whale and a Very Tall Tree.
The album tells first-person stories of Otamo, a furry creature known as a Fofer (rhymes with gopher) who lives on the magical, imaginary island of Fof. Otamo explores the island’s vibrant wildlife and its surrounding seas, and befriends every plant and animal she happens upon.
In “A Pink Whale,” Otamo comes across a giant pink whale named Guinevere while rowing around the bay. She is afraid the whale will rise up beneath the boat and send her into the water. The whale appears and says to Otamo, “Do you know you insult my intelligence? / Do you know you underestimate my awareness? / Do you know I have a very large brain? / Do you know I have feelings?”
Otamo responds, “Come back, I never meant to offend you / It’s just that your size is simply intimidating.”
The whale eventually saves Otamo from a rogue wave by collecting her in her mouth, and they remain friends forever. An animated video of the song can be viewed on Barry’s Web site, fofers.com.
While not ignoring the lessons and values expected from children’s music, Barry explores new methods of engaging young minds with storytelling and songwriting. The wide-eyed wonder and positivism enveloped in each song evoke feelings of adventure and humanity.
Pink Whale assumes a few things about children: that they are not idiots, and that they have a thirst for art that stimulates and mirrors their imaginations.
The sound of the record is tranquil and calming. Barry’s hushed voice has the soothing timbre of Vashti Bunyan’s and the gentle precision of Joanna Newsom’s work. A warm acoustic guitar and occasional ukulele accompany her voice perfectly. The album was written for children, but there’s nothing about it that wouldn’t appeal to adults who appreciate a good song.
Barry gilds Otamo’s escapades with color and whimsy. “Cloudland” depicts her journey up a tree that leads to the clouds: “I climbed right into the cumulonimbus / The clouds were the ground / The sky was outer space / I was in a cloud land ….” Otamo attends a cloud party with Cloud Fofers, drinks cloud tea, eats cloud cookies and cloud sandwiches, and listens to cloud music. An animated video for this song is also available on her Web site.
On the second-to-last track, “Bedtime Story,” Barry’s voice drops almost to a whisper. “The crickets play a symphony / The fireflies glow off and on / The wind whispers a bedtime story of a land long ago and far away.” I nearly fell asleep listening to this song. The lullaby seems like a natural closer, but is followed by a quiet, three-minute acoustic instrumental called “Peaceballs” — a last lull for those still awake after the previous track.
Clocking in at just over 21 minutes, Pink Whale is appropriately brief. Every note of the record is sweet, warm and welcoming. It challenges young listeners with its vocabulary and mature musical styles, but maintains the youthful appeal necessary to grab and hold kids’ attention. Barry’s intended audience may not have refined musical tastes by now, but with a record like this, they’ll be off to a very good start.
— Tyler Jackson