It's unfair, but I'll start this review of Pop Fly, the sixth solo kids' music album from Chicago's Justin Roberts, by saying I think Meltdown, Roberts' fifth solo kids' CD is easily on the shortlist of best kids' music CDs of the decade. Clearly, I had high expectations for the new CD, which is being released today.
Never fear, Pop Fly is a hit. (OK, I promise -- that's the only baseball-related phrase I'll use here. Read on fearlessly, folks.)
If Roberts isn't the best songwriter in the rock/pop/folk heart of kids' music, he certainly doesn't have many peers. The new album has a number of outstanding tracks that again showcase his songwriting strengths -- nifty lyrics that flow effortlessly ("Pop Fly," "Kickboard, Baby, Yeah"), carefully crafted portraits of life at home ("From Scratch", "The Backyard Super Kid"), and an affinity for singalong choruses ("Stay-at-Home Dad", "Field Trip"). If some of the lyrics don't quite work -- a stay-at-home dad who kids' clothes don't match very well seems a bit cliched -- it's forgivable because so much else does.
Roberts' melodic and musical sense is once again ably abetted by fellow musician Liam Davis, who again produces Roberts' CD. The album sounds great, from the faux Dylan (and loose chorus) of "Henrietta's Hair" to the strings on "The Backyard Super Kid" to the mellow surf sounds of "Kickboard, Baby, Yeah." And, yeah, there are a bunch of horns, a Roberts habit from almost the very beginning. The alterna-pop sound mixes in hints of Fountains of Wayne and ELO, and every great forgotten '80s alternative hitmaker, along with Burt Bacharach. It's a heady mix.
The overall mood of the album is somewhat more reflective than Meltdown, and maybe for that reason I liked Pop Fly a little bit less. It's maybe a little bit more in the Not Naptime camp -- another fine album, but more downtempo than Roberts' best-known songs. The irrepressible protagonists of "Meltdown" or "Ten Little Cookies" don't make an appearance here. Again, the songs are excellent, they're just a little more mellow. And I think Roberts' best songs are the less mellow ones.
Having said that, my favorite song on the CD -- my favorite song of the year thus far, kids or adult -- is the tender "Fruit Jar". It's a stone-cold folk classic, with lines like "Life ain't no fruit jar / Stuck in a cellar / Sometimes you've just got to / Spin that old propeller / Watch it rise up / Way past the moon / And if love don't find you / You know it's going to be there soon." The song itself is beautifully constructed -- add the duetting voice of Nora O'Connor (who also appeared on Yellow Bus) and Davis' nifty guitar work, and it's one of those songs that should carry on far beyond this album. It's a tremendously affecting tune, and consdering how much some of Roberts' other songs have affected me ("Cartwheels and Somersaults," for example), that's high praise.
The album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8. You can find Roberts' CDs in an increasing number of physical stores, but if you want to hear songs from the 37-minute album, you can hear "Pop Fly" by checking out Roberts' Radio or his (new) Myspace page (or check out snippets at your favorite online retailer).
Pop Fly is another masterfully crafted collection of songs which will have broad appeal just like the best in kids' literature. If Roberts has taken a slightly more mellow approach to his songs this time around, they're no less appealing. Highly recommended.