It’s the blessed relief from the dictates of “cool” and the straitjacket of “relevance” that can make good kids’ music so, well, cool and relevant. It is the unquestioned assumption of authority and a downward-pointed educational motive that can make stale kids’ music such a darn bummer. While it does take its messaging quite seriously, “kindie rock” of the kind that Ratboy Jr. makes is not fundamentally moral or didactic in purpose. The only lesson this long-running duo has ever really seriously pursued is: Yes. It’s allowed. You have permission. Be thyself. Get wild. Get weird. Get tender and sad. Harm none.
On Lucky Foot & Sunny Moon, as on their three previous collaborations, the band (Tim Sutton and Matt Senzatimore) and multiple Grammy-winning producer Dean Jones’ vivid and outrageous musical choices are permission in action: a broad palette of sonics, grooves, single-occurrence interlopers and gang vocals from the many kids in their lives. But as in every Jones production, the deployment is strict and graceful. If a Jones record is a kitchen sink, it is a darn tidy one. And Lucky Foot & Sunny Moon is an especially focused effort from this team.
The funky epistemology of “Anything Can Be a Hat” (in which Matty proves to Timmy exactly that) exemplifies both the messaging and the mode of this lean, tight and ultra-listenable rock record. Its minimalist groove supports the escalating weirdness of a dialogue about the definition of a hat. Frequent Ratboy Jr. guest artist Shane Kirsch elevates everything with his brainy, elegant sax lines and his almost-superhuman phrasing. You can hear Senzatimore’s love of Zappa in it if you want, but you don’t have to.
More than on any previous Ratboy Jr. record, Sutton’s passion for bedrock, universalist songwriting in the Tom Petty style shines forth on Lucky Foot & Sunny Moon. The apex of this impulse is the kind of punk-ethos manifesto “Play Us on the Radio,” which features an utterly charming deejay cameo from Radio Kingston founder and longtime Radio Woodstock program director and deejay Jimmy Buff. “We Get By” references the thunk groove and synth sounds of the Cars, while the barebones drive of “Dirt” reminds me of Cracker in the verses, the Stones in the chorus. You get the picture.
Longtime friends and fans will appreciate the inclusion of a tender rendition of “The Log,” a Beatlesque, Mellotron-decorated animal allegory that has been part of the fellows’ live set longer back than I can remember. Soporific in the best sense, “Snuggling” brings the record to a lush and luminous finish and is one of its real highlights, featuring a contribution from old friend and longtime Andrew Bird collaborator Martin Dosh.
Ratboy Jr. celebrates the release of another triumph with a show at Yard Owl Brewery in Gardiner on Sunday, May 19. Admission costs $5 per body. Lucky Foot & Sunny Moon CDs are available for $12 or two for $20.
Ratboy Jr. show, Sunday, May 19, 1-3 p.m., Yard Owl, 19 Osprey Ln., Gardiner, www.ratboyjr.com