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Tricks Are For Kids: ‘Grandma Sparrow & His Piddletractor Orchestra’ Is Mind-Blowing

SPIN Rating: 9 of 10
Release Date: May 20, 2014
Label: Spacebomb Records

Beginning in the mid-’50s, kids music evolved from naive story-songs created for children exclusively to often epically weird Gesamtkunstwerken actually aimed at adults. Among the early masters, Jim Copp and Ed Brown’s homemade productions chronicled strange little kids on surreal voyages and tiresome adults who got their comeuppance in places like Flumdiddle and the Sea of Glup. Eventually, composers like Mort Garson (The Wozard of Iz) and Bruce Haack (The Way-Out Record for Children) would create state-of-the-art electronic music for kids of all ages. Decades later, Dan Zanes and his ilk sound like mewling Brooklyn mommies in comparison.

Joseph Westerlund, who has been hiding his mad enthusiasm for avant-garde children’s music behind the drum kit of North Carolina experimental folk-rockers Megafaun, has picked up this niche baton and scampered away with it. Westerlund’s freak flag doesn’t merely wave on Grandma Sparrow & His Piddletractor Orchestra, it dissolves into a lysergic puddle of electronics, tape manipulation, hyper-edited time shifts, squinky puns, infantilized psychosexual “situations,” and darkness on the edge of sanity. The second release on producer Matthew E. White’s Spacebomb label, Grandma Sparrow is nostalgic, futuristic, hilarious, profound, disturbing, ecstatic, ridiculous, and brilliant.

Westerlund provides all the voices on the album, which describes a typically strange day in the life of Alewishus, “clown prince of Piddletractor,” who may have been abducted by the titular trickster Grandma Sparrow – who’s a he. Piddletractor’s other residents include Tinkleminus, Scrimpa, the Bark Commissioner, the menacing Oryoman, and other characters from the Copp-meets-Lewis Carroll casting service. The events arise from a sonic vortex reminiscent of early Stockhausen electronics and then ramble along (“just follow the anxiousness of the sun”) like Zappa’s Adventures of Greggery Peccary before setting into the Joycean vortex of “Alew’s Dream.”

The strings, horns, and vocal choir that helped transform Matthew E. White, on his Spacebomb debut, into what I (guiltily) characterized as a “bearish, white Barry White” become the devilish devices of Westerlund’s impish impiety on Sparrow. Megafaun’s Brad Cook referred to his bandmate’s new project as the ultimate brain dump during a recent New York double bill during which Grandma Sparrow – behind a paper nose, fake glasses, and earth-toned vest and cape – turned out to be a livelier and more believable creation than his Levon Helm-like second-set doppelganger. His band re-created what might have seemed like impossible studio parts with rock-operatic conviction and precision.

At the end of the day, however, Sparrow ain’t nothin’ but a playdate. Having whipped the kids into a “pigsmilk candycane” sugar high, Grandma quiets them down with a Schoenbergian “Twelve-Tone Lullabye.” Westerlund punctuates his brilliant tightrope trip of high and low styles with anthems and sing-alongs – e.g., “Obediah sacremiah existential mothersnakes” – suggesting unplumbed levels of meaning. Westerlund’s brilliant odyssey is no sillier or more serious than any group of rugrats chanting about hurdy-gurdy understains, marmaladed pony’s manes, and dilapidated monkey brains. It concludes with the threat of child abuse, however, which may be the most realistic thing about it. Parenting may be all joy and no fun these days, but Grandma Sparrow provides both joy and fun in spades, while reinventing an entire subgenre in the process.