Writing children's music that appeals to both kids and adults is a tricky proposition. Many artists target their songs at the kids and try to include enough interesting musical or lyrical ideas to keep the parents from ripping the CD out of the car's CD player and throwing it onto the road in utter frustration after listening to it for the third time today. It's more difficult to write songs that speak equally (or at least not utterly disproportionately) to both generations. Justin Roberts is one of the best practitioners of that art.
Released in March 2006, Meltdown! is Justin Roberts' fifth album for kids. Roberts has been compared to James Taylor, a comparison earned mostly because their voices are similar. But Roberts' musical strengths are his uptempo rockers, not wistful ballads, and this album shows off his guitar-based pop-rock to fine effect.
Roberts has honed his pop hooks to a fine point. "Our Imaginary Rhino," the lead single, pulls out every stop to create a great power-pop song -- an irresistible pop hook, "c'mon, c'mon, c'mons," and "na-na-nas" It's such a great tune that I'm willing to overlook the lyric "Cause it's more than super fino / When you're imaginary rhinos." (Hey, there are only so many words that rhyme with "rhino," and I think I speak for everyone reading when I say that "wino" would not be an appropriate word for a children's music album.) The song has been in my brain for more than a month now and shows no signs of leaving.
My other favorite song on the album is "Cartwheels and Somersaults," another uptempo song about an older brother's happiness upon the arrival of a younger sibling. While it's written from the perspective of the older sibling (the narrator and subject of many of Roberts' songs are the kids themselves), the chorus is totally relatable to the parents -- "And it's all your fault / yeah it's all your fault / It's you we love / (Mama can I hold her) / You we love / (Let's put her on your shoulder)." The giddiness of the music (with a vaguely "Lust For Life" bass line) matches the giddiness another family member can create in that family's life. And let's face it, we don't get to hear songs that talk about that part of our lives too often, but Roberts has figured out how to do it here.
The rest of the album is pretty good, too. The gratuitous Modern English references in the title track, the '80s synthesizers in "Maybe the Monster," the sneaky older brother blaming all the accidents on his siblings, they're enough to keep the parents listening while the kids bop their heads. I've never been as big a fan of Roberts' slower songs -- personal taste here -- but the closing track, "Song For You," is a nice ballad that could be sung to your child or your spouse. It's a song that James Taylor would be proud to record.
While younger siblings may bop their heads along to the bouncier songs, Meltdown! is best for kids aged 5 to 10. It's available at the usual online suspects and may or may not be available in some big bookstores. Meltdown! is Justin Roberts' best album yet. Highly recommended.