When Dan Zanes led the new-wave garage-rock band the Del Fuegos in the mid-'80s, he was known more for his passion and spontaneity than his polish and precision, and the same is true of his popular series of children's albums. Since 2001, he has released five CDs of mostly acoustic music for younger audiences, and they have the same ramshackle charm as his rock 'n' roll records. The tempos can be ragged and the vocals aren't always on pitch, but never do the discs descend into cuteness or preachiness.
"House Party," the fourth in that series, is typical of its predecessors. The kind of multicultural folk songs that the Weavers used to sing are mixed in with a handful of originals, and some famous guest stars join Zanes and his core group of Brooklyn neighbors. Thus you have Zanes and the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir singing an offhand duet on the Carter Family's "Wabash Cannonball," Blondie's Deborah Harry singing a parlor version of Australia's "Waltzing Matilda," and Philip Glass playing pump organ on Zanes's six-minute reverie "A Place for Us." It's packaged as part of a colorful children's book with cardboard pages.
"Sea Music" is a departure from the formula. There's no cardboard book and no famous guests, and the repertoire is narrowly focused on old seafaring songs. But in many ways, this is the best album Zanes has ever made. Many of the songs concern the homesick longing that is the lot of sailors everywhere, and Zanes captures that ache in his shaggy tenor. The string-band arrangements are loose and low-key, but when Zanes sings of "Leaving of Liverpool" (an old British song adapted by Bob Dylan as "Farewell"), of the hard life on the "Sloop John B" (a Bahamas sponge boat song transformed by the Beach Boys into a No. 3 pop hit), or of the girl left behind on the other side of the Missouri in "Shenandoah," every listener of every age will hear an echo of his or her own yearning for home.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Saturday at IOTA and Sunday at the Maryland Science Center House Party. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Dan Zanes's "House Party," call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8109; to hear "Sea Music," press 8110. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)