Review: Joe Ely’s new album is for children of all ages

“Flatland Lullaby,” Joe Ely (Rack ‘em/Thirty Tigers)

Don’t assume Joe Ely’s new children’s album will have limited appeal. It’s for anyone who has ever been a kid.

“Flatland Lullaby” was a long time in the works. Some of the material dates from the 1970s, and Ely began recording it at his home studio in Austin, Texas, in 1984 as a gift to his infant daughter, Marie. (That’s her baby photo on the cover.)

Ely sometimes spent years working on a verse, and the decades of incubation show: The album is a relaxed but polished, varied and charming delight that evokes “Yellow Submarine,” “Abbey Road,” Saturday morning cartoons and trips to the circus. There’s less twang than elsewhere in Ely’s catalog, and instead a dreamy, slightly surreal ambience, with synthesizers playing an effective role in creating fairy tale soundscapes.

The moon, sun and stars are recurring characters. A blue jay pulls a plow, a ghost gets spooked, and straw turns to gold. “Over the Water” gently shimmers and sways as Ely sings about dreamers and lost children, while “The Gypsy Lady” is a bouncy, effervescent fiddle tune that addresses big questions.

Woody Guthrie’s “Riding in My Car” becomes a Bakersfield-style duet with Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Ely honors nature and a beautiful, overlooked melody on the traditional tune “Woody Knows Nothin.'” The other cover is an enchanting version of “Love and Happiness for You,” graced by lovely harmony vocals from Kimmie Rhodes Gracey, who wrote the song with Emmylou Harris.

A poignant wish for sweet dreams closes the album, which — like childhood — ends too soon.

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