April 1999

Sounds of North American Frogs
Smithsonian Folkways 45060
Released: 1998

by Marc Mickelson

Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Long one of the most popular Folkways "science series" titles, this recording is certainly music to a frog’s ears, but will people enjoy it? Aside from all of the nearly deadpan but interesting commentary from herpetologist Charles Bogert, there are the many calls of frogs and toads, and you’ll be surprised to hear the diversity of sounds they represent -- from guttural groans to quick chirps with stops in between. There are even duets and full-blown frog choirs. We audiophiles listen intently to pick out individual instruments in a complex mix, and I find myself doing no less than this here, especially when narrator Bogert prompts me to listen carefully for one thing or another.

But the real question here is whether you, Joe D. Audiophile, should consider adding this non-music title to your collection, and here are a couple of perspectives. First, a number of the tracks can be useful for evaluating audio equipment, especially speakers. No kidding! Most of the calls have distinctive attack and decay patterns that all speakers don’t reproduce identically -- at least the ones I have here didn’t. For example, as narrator Bogert points out, the call of the Southern Toad has "68 to 78 pulsations per second at a frequency of 2150 cycles per second." Thus, its rapid series of trills is a real midrange workout. In fact, I used this track to reproduce a raspiness in the midrange driver of one of my reference speakers, which led me to suspect that the driver was bad. And I was right.

The second reason to consider this CD, and the far better one, is for the story it tells. This disc is not a mere cataloging of frog and toad calls, but rather an aural documentary on their distinctness and biological significance. I found myself listening to the commentary for each selection with anticipation of the few seconds of calls that follow. The liner notes are very helpful too, but not necessary for just enjoying the disc. I’ve listened to it as both background noise, in which case my head snaps around to the speakers regularly, and the main event. In fact, the sheer amount of information on this disc -- 57 species of frogs and toads are represented on 92 tracks -- makes repeated listening satisfying. However, I do concede that you have to be open to liking the material here. If National Geographic specials turn you off, this CD probably will too.

Recorded in 1958, Sounds of North American Frogs has withstood the test of time more successfully than a good deal of the music of its time and has become a kind of folk artifact in its own right. Sinatra it’s not, but there are plenty of golden, throaty calls on display. Recommended for amphibian lovers -- and those who love them -- everywhere.