Review: Lullaby - Justin Roberts

It's been awhile since I've written a review here.  There are a number of reasons for that, most of them entirely unrelated to kids music.

A small reason for my recent lack of reviews, however, is trying to figure out how to write to music without resorting to the same phrases and frames of reference I've been using for so long.  It's hard to do the same thing year-in, year-out without feeling a little drained.  It takes effort to mix it up, to stretch oneself in a new direction.

Which brings us ("Finally!," you say) to Justin Roberts' new album Lullaby.  For the follow-up to his masterful album Jungle Gym, Roberts didn't choose to write another album of perfect pop and power-pop songs (for that, we'll have to wait until 2013).  Instead, kindie's finest songwriter stretched in a slightly different direction, writing an entire album of, well, if not exactly lullabies, then at least songs for downtime.

Roberts isn't a stranger to slow songs, of course -- songs like "Dad Caught Stars" and "Song for You" are among his best work -- but they typically serve as the dessert, not the main course as they are here.  So instead of songs about bullies or baseball, Roberts has crafted a late-night album of love songs.

Of course, that's what a lot of lullabies are, an attempt to soothe the troubled child (or adult) with a pleasant melody and words that offer comfort and the reassurance of a watching and loving eye.  And some of the best lullaby albums are those that repurpose "adult" song and reframe them as songs of love from parent to child.

Most songs here, stripped of their origin in a "kids music" album, would sound just as appropriate in a mellow, "adult music" album.  Only "A Wild One," which sounds like a lost Van Morrison track, might draw a few odd looks from listeners were it mixed in with other non-kids-music tracks.  The track itself is dedicated "for Maurice," who, based on the lyrics regarding a boy reading books before bedtime, is clearly Maurice Sendak.  It's as close to an anti-lullaby this lullaby album gets.

Key to the feelings of warmth engendered by the album are the musical styles and arrangements.  The Latin samba of "What the Stork Sent," the '70s singer-songwriter folk of "Nothing on You," the string quartet on "Heart of Gold" -- Roberts is using a more muted palette, but appropriately so.  Roberts wrote the arrangements for the album with help from producer Liam Davis, who again creates an overall soundscape that serves Roberts' songs well.

Because this is a lullaby album, I am obligated by the terms and conditions of being a kids music reviewer to state that the 38-minute album is targeted at kids ages 0 through 5, but like many of the best "non-traditional" lullaby albums, its practical age range is much broader.  The album packaging, featuring paintings by Alison Jay, is, like the album itself, elegantly (but not fussily) understated, but I don't think you're missing out if you choose to get the album on mp3.

When I was in college, I would joke that they handed out copies of James Taylor's Greatest Hits album and Van Morrison's Moondance at freshman orientation, so prevalent were they in dorm rooms and apartments.  I still get some warm, fuzzy feelings when I occasionally pull them out.  Lullaby gives me those same sort of feelings, and I can see it unironically being part of parents' non-kids-time listening rotation.  I expect the album to be part of many families' relaxed afternoons, evenings, and late-night feedings.  Different tempo, same great songs.  Highly recommended.