October 4, 2022

Various Artists – Childish Music (Staubgold)

Teetering careless at the cutting-edge, the tiny Berlin-based Staubgold label seems to have identified something rather interesting. The hows and whys are going to have to be left to the cultural historians, but the fact is that an increasing number of musicians have been independently exploring a sort of naïvety in their work, and Staubgold’s response has been to release an eighty-minute mix-tape, compiled by producer Ekkehard Ehlers and curated by musician and music theorist David Toop, of twenty-five examples of ‘new music for new children’ from artists as far afield as Germany, Scotland, France, Japan, Australia, and the United States.

There’s a whole raft of issues being addressed here contingent on the paradox of the adult’s interpretation of ‘childishness’: keywords like ‘innocence’ tend to get attached to modifiers like ‘lost’, turning childhood into a mythic Garden of Eden enshrouded in pre-sexual and pre-alcoholic nostalgia. Whatever the reality behind this, there’s an obvious attraction in listening, occasionally, to something that seems to offer, even if only in a kind of tongue-in-cheeky way, a temporary reconnection with those relatively uncomplicated times – a momentary holiday from grownup cares and woes.

Childish Music sets out its stall quite unequivocally with an opening track – Mika Bubble Sing by Fan Club Orchestra, which is a simple little ditty composed around the sample of a baby blowing bubbles in the bath. If you can’t handle cute, this seems to be saying, better leave now.

‘Cute’, however, only accounts for maybe a couple more tracks on this entire compilation. The greater part of the album consists of more or less experimental vignettes – short interludes, indeed, averaging barely three minutes or so – whose common resource is xylophones, simple clapalong four-in-a-bar rhythms, major keys, lots of repetition, and simplicity, and whose common theme is a rather refreshing anti-pretentiousness, a deliberately unsophisticated remix of substance as well as style into a more or less guileless forum of honesty. It actually leaves each contributor quite exposed, which deserves respect, at the very least.

There’s a clear distinction to be made – which this album doesn’t – between music written for children and deliberately naïve music written for grownups. The former is a minefield of sentimental assumptions that, at its worst, is clichéd, patronising, and saccharine to the point of upheaval. None of that here, thank goodness, although a couple of tracks kind of mess with your head a little in that respect: Bernadette La Hengst’s Meets Cybermohalla, for instance, seems to be a Hindi Playschool romp – very strange. And the first time I heard World Standard’s Tic Tac I was listening in the quality-challenged circumstances of my in-car on-motorway CD player when, embarrassingly, I misheard the repetitive, sweetly sung chorus of ‘like a clock, like a clock’ as ‘like a fuck, like a fuck’, which lent to the piece the dark, knowing irony of a club DJ flirting with kiddie porn allusions, thereby, once I learnt my mistake, lending to the same track two henceforth unerasably confused readings.

The three Autopilot artists represented here – Anne Laplantine, F.S.Blumm, and Guido Möbius – provide three particularly pleasing examples of a sort of post-electronic thing that seems to be going on in this genre – if it is a genre – that hints more at the arts of canon and fugue than track-layering and copy/pasting: a reference, maybe, to that period in the High Baroque when the only music written for children was instructional, but, in the hands of such composers as Monteverdi, Purcell, and Bach, managed to contrive to be as beautiful and resonant as it was didactic.

Very few artists are unaffected by the birth of their first child – someone’s probably already released a compilation somewhere of the dozens of songs, from Joni Mitchell’s Blue to Martin Dosh’s Naoise inspired by that life-changing moment – and there are at least half-a-dozen examples here of musicians working with samples of children’s voices in one way or another. Asa-Chang & Junray’s Kobana is the oddest by a mile: they’ve manipulated their child’s voice to sound like a creepy Japanese Gollum muttering to itself on the edge of a campfire as someone warbles on harmonica, blissfully unaware of this evil in their midst, whilst someone else doodles on bored bamboo bongos in the background. Child as Chucky.

La Grande Illusion’s Let’s Pretend, on the other hand, emerges shyly out of a brief sample from George Harrison’s 1969 Here Comes The Sun to work up one of those melodic spells that inject a seemingly unremarkable two-bar piano melody so deep into your hippocampus that you end up whistling it as you pull your socks on, clean your teeth, save the rainforests, and synthesise the universal hangover cure. And still it just Will-Not-Go-Away!

Harald “Sack” Ziegler’s Ritterball also uses a child’s voice, but here as a tantalizing prelude to some bizarre virtual performance event whose opening gesture – a mournful trumpet fanfare – seems to have been hijacked by a four-year-old’s stumbling over an open mic and enjoying the effect of shouting into it. Quite operatic in effect if not in scale, this enigmatic little piece is one of the less easily decoded contributions to the compilation, and all the more satisfying for that.

As in any themed compilation, be it chill, Christmas, or childishness, there’s bound to be a few indigestible lumps in the mix depending on your taste, and, even moving from one listening session to another, what yesterday sounded charming and fresh might today sound winsome and cloying. But hey, that’s why the Great Sony gave us skip buttons, n’est-ce pas?

Whereas it addresses some quite challenging ideas about naïve music, and provides a handy index for further explorations, Childish Music is in itself an exhilarating sugar-rush dive into the collective toy-chest of these twenty-five artists’ adroit regressions. If nothing else, it’s a timely reminder that, by the same token truism that youth is wasted on the young, playfulness was never, nor should ever be the prerogative of the child.