Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? is one of those rather ubiquitous edutainment titles of the late 80s and early 90s. A geography-driven game, the goal is to find clues around the world to stop Carmen’s henchmen from stealing some of the most notable artifacts from around the world, eventually leading to stopping Carmen herself.
A fair share of computers around the world had Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? installed, probably alongside Odell Lake or Number Munchers. But as time goes on, the video games have become only one part of what people remember about Carmen Sandiego as a franchise. If you’re in that generation of ’90s kids like me, you probably remember Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? not from a best-selling video game series, but through a rather popular game show.
Also called Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, it was a kids game show that was about the wonders of geography. This show was co-produced by PBS stations WGBH and WQED, and aired on PBS stations all around the country. Hosted by actor Greg Lee and featuring actress Lynne Thigpen as “The Chief,” it featured kids playing gumshoes at ACME Crimenet, answering geography questions to stop the theft of an artifact of the world from one of Carmen’s henchmen, with the final round having the winning gumshoe try to find Carmen herself to win a fabulous trip.
This show holds about as much nostalgia for kids of the 80s and 90s as most of Nickelodeon’s well known game shows did. It definitely rivals some of the greats on that network, what with it’s cool style, entertaining form of education, and fun quiz elements, giving a silly but fun vibe to the whole show. It lasted about 4 years on PBS before pivoting from geography to history, with a follow-up series called Where In Time is Carmen Sandiego? lasting two more years before ending production.
Naturally for a show that’s modestly popular like Where in the World… is, there would be loads of merchandising. The common T-shirts, video game adaptations, the works. Since the show featured a capella band Rockapella singing throughout the show’s 250+ episode run, naturally a soundtrack CD was also released. But there’s more than one soundtrack made for Where in the World…, and that one’s been mostly forgotten. Let’s talk about Carmen Sandiego: Out of this World.
Admittedly, I’m writing about this primarily because of an article I read about the game show that has been making the internet rounds lately. Christian Carrion of Buzzerblog, a noted blog about game show news, did some investigative journalism about a rumored long-lost episode of the show called “Auld Lang Gone,” where a contestant was visibly injured in the bonus round, causing it to be unaired. You can read about that tale over at Buzzerblog here, and it made me think about this album as a response.
This album features 10 songs about various things, from pop-driven songs about geography, to twangy country about families, to songs about bugs and Carmen Sandiego herself. A lot of these songs have fairly simple, cutesy lyrics, which tells me this album is clearly aiming for a younger demographic. Which is not a bad thing, children’s music can be fun and exciting like its adult counterparts without being fluff Yanni-esque fare.
So, you’d think an album based on the game show where a bunch of guys sing a capella would have Rockapella show up everywhere, right? Well, technically yes. Prominent member Sean Altman produces and co-writes most of the album with longtime collaborator David Yazbek, and does a handful of backing vocals on a lot of the album.
If you want to listen along with me, I’ve put up the entire album here. Legalities aside, the album’s been out of print for over 25 years, and with the exception of two songs here, the album isn’t available on YouTube or streaming services like Spotify. If that ever changes, or a record label objects to me having this music for some kids album freely available to download, I will take the link down.
Basically, don’t go into this album expecting an album full of Rockapella bops, because that isn’t what you get here. Instead, the album is mostly performed by the host of Where in the World…, Greg Lee. I usually don’t criticize musicians, but I have to make an exception in this case: Greg Lee is a terrible singer. He doesn’t have much of a strong vocal range to pull off some of the work they ask for him here. I feel bad having to slag Greg Lee like this, but he is clearly out of his depth. He’s definitely no better than me at karaoke night.
I want to smack whoever thought letting Lee sing a good half of the album was a good idea. Imagine these songs being sung by Lee’s other well-known role – Mayor Robert “Bob” White from Doug – and you get an idea on how bad these sound.
Let’s go through each track. We start with “Half A World Away,” a song about longing for a long-distant friend that has sort of a soft alternative rock kinda sound, the kind of stuff you’d probably hear before the grunge movement set in. Lee sings on this track, alongside three other vocalists – Burl Mann, Ian Jaeger, and Norm Raposbec – under the moniker of the “3 Brave Woodsmen.” The 3 Brave Woodsmen are the sole reason that stops this track from being almost unlistenable garbage.
Thankfully there’s songs from other artists here that are much more palatable. While Rockapella appears more in the background on this album, they do throw us a bone and give us one Rockapella performed track, “Big Wet Rag.” It’s a good track, in spite of having a bunch of unusual nature sounds put towards lyrics of someone being such a debbie downer. Despite that, it’s probably the highlight of the whole album. Then again, I’ve never really heard a Rockapella song I didn’t like. Even 2010’s “Bang,” which you could get on Rock Band 2 via the Rock Band Network was quite a banger.
The third track features XTC, a band of which I only known them for one song: “Senses Working Overtime.” They contribute this song to the album, “Cherry In Your Tree.” It’s a very pop-friendly song with some… rather questionable lyrics, which was likely indicative of what Andy Partridge was trying to do with the band around this time. This song would later appear in an Andy Partridge compilation called Fuzzy Warbles Volume 6 in demo form, and this seems to be the only other place this song appears in. It’s an alright song, with a very light pop vibe to it. I genuinely need to listen to more XTC, because I doubt this song is a good indication of their work.
Before the next song, we get a 30-second preamble from Greg Lee advocating proper healthy eating, as the following track, “Cake for Breakfast,” is a polka that talks about that confectionery treat. Lee’s singing is passable, but fast paced songs really make his limited singing range more prominent. He has to be bolstered by Rockapella and other singers on the track to make it not sound completely bad. The song does have a pretty solid saxophone solo, though, which redeems it somewhat.
Following that rather bizarre polka, we get another Greg Lee-performed song, a country twang about family called “My Parents’ Son.” Again, it’s alright. It’s probably the best Greg Lee sounds on this album, probably because he’s putting a silly southern drawl to his singing voice, and the backing vocalists here actually helps boost the song into a perfect country pastiche. It’s not amazing, but this is more tolerable than what I’ve heard so far.
In a rare case of not performing a capella, Rockapella member Sean Altman contributes a traditional pop song about the world called, appropriately, “Change My World.” Performed under the moniker of Johnny Nexdor & His Neighbors, this goes for the more traditional old-school pop fare, complete with blaring horns and a guitar solo. The song is rather innocuous otherwise. This would’ve been better in the traditional Rockapella style, just so we can two songs from them on this album.
Next, we get a song by They Might Be Giants, a band who would later carve their own niche making children’s songs. They contribute a cover of “Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas).” It’s the original version from their EP of the same name also released in 1993, and not the later fast-rocking version from Severe Tire Damage and Here Comes Science. It’s an okay version.
I’m more partial to their live performance of the song on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, which features John Hodgman doing the spoken parts during the song, and concludes with TMBG performing the answer song “Why Does the Sun Really Shine? (The Sun is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma)” afterwards. It’s a great performance. This original version isn’t that special, and I’m not surprised they decided to pep it up years later, it’s more memorable.
After that, Greg Lee returns in this R&B-styled song called “Bugs,” and it’s a rather oddball song with some unusual lyrics and some soulful backing vocals. Lee sounds a bit better here, because the song’s more swing-like rhythm means it gives him more room to breathe and vamp. At least it has co-producer David Yazbek doing some slick clavinet licks and an organ solo.
Next, we get a soulful pop song called “Back to Chicago,” sung by The Chief herself, Lynne Thigpen. Naturally about the city of the same name. It’s probably one of the more standout tracks out of the whole album, only because Thigpen can actually sing and does it pretty damn well. The song itself is unremarkable, but this feels like a relief compared to hearing mostly Greg at this point. I wonder if this is how she got the gig of Luna in Bear in the Big Blue House.
The album concludes with a song about Carmen Sandiego, called “Carmen’s Song.” Once again sung by Greg Lee but with Rockapella backing him up. It makes the song more passable, but it’s still hampered by Lee singing lead. In a sense, it almost sounds like a rejected theme song for the show. Really, I would’ve preferred just another performance of the theme song over this unusual choice. Surprised they didn’t consider doing that, even if they already performed it countless times before.
Though I can’t blame you if the chorus of “Carmen’s Song” gets stuck in your head like it did for me. Congrats, Carmen Sandiego: Out of this World, you have made a song that hits that “terrible god damn earworm” status, stuff I usually reserve for stuff like Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic.” That’s an impressive feat.
As I listened to this album, I tried to figure out who this was made for. I could understand making a pop-friendly kids album, but this just isn’t that great. It just seems too silly for kids, and it doesn’t have much appeal for adults unless you wanted deep cuts from XTC or They Might Be Giants. Even fans of Where in the World… aren’t really asking for the show’s host and The Chief to sing a bunch of songs about cake, bugs, or Chicago. They’d be asking to “Do it, Rockapella!”
It just feels like a weird fever dream experiment. I genuinely want to know more about how this album came about. Did Sean Altman of Rockapella want to make a pop album, but felt like he didn’t have enough name recognition? How did Greg Lee feel having to sing on most of this album? How the heck did they swing XTC into this? I’m more fascinated by why this album exists rather than the album itself.
You’d have better luck finding the first album based on Where in the World… as that’s nothing but Rockapella tracks, and features the iconic theme song. Carmen Sandiego: Out of This World is an interesting curiosity in my collection that I’m glad I own, in spite of me not really enjoying it that much. It’s something I can treasure and show off to people, more than the Pentium II plush doll I got the same day. I even talked about this CD on an entry about some random video game music CDs I bought a few years back. Man, this year has been me constantly digging back into stuff I bought and blogged about years ago. Wonder what that says about me…
I feel like we’re long overdue for a revival of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? the game show. If not that, it’d be nice if the original show was available on a streaming service somewhere. People always love watching old game shows, and I think this show definitely deserves to be seen again by those who remember the show, or to introduce the show to a new audience. If anything, I bet Rockapella would appreciate a new group of fans.
Carmen Sandiego: Out of This World track listing:
- Greg Lee with 3 Brave Woodsmen – Half A World Away (3:59)
- Rockapella – Big Wet Rag (2:39)
- XTC – Cherry In Your Tree (2:53)
- Greg Lee – A Brief Disclaimer (0:32)
- Greg Lee – Cake for Breakfast (3:33)
- Greg Lee – My Parents’ Son (3:45)
- Johnny Nexdor & His Neighbors – Change My World (2:35)
- They Might Be Giants – Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas) (2:50) (originally from the Why Does The Sun Shine EP)
- Greg Lee – Bugs (3:50)
- Lynne Thigpen – Back To Chicago (2:47)
- Greg Lee – Carmen’s Song (3:11)