Sing the phrase "I'm just a Bill, yes I'm only a Bill" to any American between the ages of 25 and 40 and they'll answer "and I'm sittin' here on Capitol Hill" without thinking twice. "I'm Just a Bill" was only one of dozens of School House Rock! animated videos that ran on ABC Saturday morning TV throughout the '70s. Following the lead of Sesame Street, the shorts, sandwiched between cartoon and commercials, combined catchy tunes, cartoons, and educational messages. The shows have enjoyed a resurgence in the '90s with their re-airing on ABC (along with some new sequences) as well as the decade's '70s nostalgia.
More than the messages or the videos, School House Rock! is remembered for its songs. These super-hummable full-length jingles have a permanent place in collective memories of the '70s, so it seems appropriate that the program's owners have brought together a collection of young bands to cover the songs, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the Children's Defense Fund.
The 15 songs on this initial offering only represent a portion of the total set, but it is a collection of the most memorable ditties. Beyond the undeniably delicious nostalgia trip, the compilation shows the surprising songcraft of the original tunes. The fabulous "Interplanet Janet" performed by Man or Astroman? could easily be mistaken for a proto-punk space saga. Matching the songs with today's reigning alt-pop darlings like Better Than Ezra, Ween, Buffalo Tom, and the Lemonheads is a logical progression, continuing the tradition of melody-centered pop carried by earnestly pretty singing.
There are also some great surprises. Biz Markie turns in a stride piano version of "Energy Blues," which sounds remarkably like the original. Moby udpates "Verb:That's What's Happening" with an Ant music beat and crackly vocal effects. Blind Melon is perfect for the '70s feel-good vibe of "Three Is a Magic Number." It's proof of the power of nostalgia when a song about multiplication, with its rolling jam-band rhythms and naive imagery of a nuclear family "a man and woman had a little baby/and that's a magic number," along with Shannon Hoon's wispy vocals, has unexpected resonance of lost childhood.
Some of the experimentation seems a little overreaching, particularly Pavement's "No More Kings," but it's still interesting, particularly Chavez's psychedelic spoken-word treatment of "Little Twelvetoes," which is, admittedly, trippy to begin with.