“I consider myself a Dave Matthews wannabe, while Carrie has an Alicia Keys, Nora (sic) Jones sort of thing going on. And we get this kind of folk-rock, piano-driven mesh when we get our styles together,” local singer-songwriter Jon Lewis told The Gazette in 2011.
Whoa there. Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves now. Those are hefty names to be tossing around all willy-nilly. Sure, Jon loves his whisper voice almost as much as he likes his razor (it must take the guy light-years to get his facial hair shaved into that whole AJ-from-the-Backstreet-Boys look), and yeah, Carrie has a strong and naturally charming tone to her singing, but … Dave Matthews has “Crash Into Me” money, Alicia Keys has sold about 30 million records, and Norah (yeah, somebody had a typo somewhere) Jones is, well, Norah Jones. And you don’t mess with Norah Jones.
You also shouldn’t mess with other people’s music. But, in a somewhat hypocritically shocking move, the Lewises do just that on their latest foray into kids’ music, the predictably titled “Mr. Jon & Friends.” It’s a charming set that’s as immaculately produced as it is strategically presented. A lighthearted collection with songs that, for the most part, have pleasantly short run-times. Good vibes. A genuine, honest-to-goodness, real, living and breathing kids’ record that most 1- to 10-year-olds should have no trouble enjoying.
But it doesn’t matter how many daycare joints want to blast this thing through their Fisher Price speakers: Ol’ Jon and Carrie need to check classic rock radio every now and then because some of these “original” songs borrow shamelessly from other artists. The most blatant example? “Racing Car,” a tune that mirrors AC/DC’s “Back In Black” so much that you have to check if the names Angus Young, Malcolm Young and Brian Johnson appear in the credits accompanying the record. And do they? Nope. Despite the identical breaks that pop up in each verse, there isn’t as much as a mention or half-credit to be found anywhere. The lyrics are changed, sure, and the chorus expands differently than its sister-song, but holy cow … that riff. That riff is undeniable. That riff is iconic. And that riff, of course, is not their own.
It wouldn’t be half as bad if this wasn’t a record aimed at children, of course, but come on, guys! What kind of values does something like that teach tomorrow’s heroes?!
Granted, Mr. Jon and his wife aren’t the first artists to use this trick (especially in the made-for-kids category), but it would be unfair to claim that the whole thing doesn’t hover over the rest of the set like a single cloud that ruins any chance for a sunny day. It even sort of stains the traditional tunes that pop up. “Wheels On the Bus,” for instance, is actually a bit bluesy and interesting while the Carrie-led “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” could easily be perceived as touching, her graceful voice giving the overall performance a smoky atmosphere. It’s not Norah Jones, yes, but it’s also not Britney Spears.
As for the other original songs that paint the release? Well, it’s hard. Because while you want to give Mr. Jon and Carrie Lewis the benefit of the doubt, it’s difficult not to wonder about the genesis of these songs. “Moovin Groovin,” “Summertime” and “Spooky Spider” are both pleasant and adequate, cute ditties that adolescents could easily latch onto. Jon is steady in his playing. In a lesser artist’s hands, the whole thing could seem overwhelmingly cheesy or generic, but he’s smart enough to keep the majority of the songs at minimal length, and it quickly becomes clear that he and his acoustic guitar have spent more time together than the guy who played Barney ever did with that purple suit.
Naturally, the best moments come when Carrie steps up. It’s not often, but when she does, the performances lean toward alternative meanings that have the ability to appeal to an adult demographic. “The Cat Came Back” works as a double entendre and with its pop-jazz piano, it makes for a really good, if not great, distraction from the overtly juvenile (which, obviously, is the point) feel that paints a lot of the record. “I’m Gonna Sing” very simply could have been on the soundtrack to “Juno,” and though it wasn’t, the thing should fit well on some Sony Pictures Classics indie flick ready for an art house near you. Carrie is like a sweeter Kimya Dawson, and the ukulele sounds that accompany her make for perfect delicacy. All told, it’s one of the best locally bred songs this page has seen in 2013. But it’s also not enough to outshine the nerve that it takes to so blatantly rip off a well-known rock song without ever citing the fact that anything of the sort even occurred.
Need a kids album? “Mr. Jon & Friends” is as expertly crafted as a guy with a pet, stuffed-animal monkey could get. It’s playful and it’s charming and it’s nonsensical and it’s poppy and it’s happy. Listening to it is like listening to “Reading Rainbow” hanging out with “Sesame Street,” making plans to catch up later with “Blue’s Clues.” There isn’t a single discernible reason why a 4-year-old wouldn’t fall in love with any of this.
However, it’s those 40-year-olds who may recognize a guitar pattern or two that the Lewises might want to consider. And exactly how those 40-year-olds might respond when their kids ask them who they are listening to … well, that’s anybody’s guess. Honesty is key when you’re a kid. It’s a shame that such a fundamental life lesson has to be ignored by artists who seem to want to educate and entertain children of all shapes and sizes.
Growing up is inevitable. And as Jon and Carrie prove here, it’s also inevitably hard.
** 2 STARS OUT OF 4 **