CD Review: Justin Roberts, “Pop Fly”

Justin Roberts – Pop Fly (2008, Carpet Square)
purchase this album (Amazon)

I listen to a lot of it now, obviously, but I’ve never been all that proactive about finding new kids’ music — partly because I’ve been lucky enough to have a steady stream of the stuff sent here for work, and partly because I’ve always made a conscious effort to feed my children a varied musical diet. My daughter loves Danielle Sansone as much as she loves Springsteen, and the only time I feel a panicky need to find something new for her to love is when she asks to listen to the mix CD of songs by the cursed Raffi that a family “friend” sent us, which is part of why I’m only just now hearing Pop Fly, the latest release from Justin Roberts — oh, and why I’m just now hearing Justin Roberts for the first time, too.

If you aren’t a kids’ music aficionado, me losing my Justin Roberts virginity may not seem like a big deal, but if you’re among the truly hip breeders, you know how embarrassing it is for a kids’ music critic to be unfamiliar with a giant of the genre like Roberts, who has been earning raves since releasing his first album, Great Big Sun, in 1998. Having now heard Pop Fly three or four dozen times, I understand why; it’s become the biggest cliche in all of children’s music to say an album is as much fun for the parents as it is for the kids, but Roberts actually manages to pull it off here. No, seriously, you guys — where the most successful kids’ recording artists generally tend to have a gift for writing songs that look at life through a child’s eyes, Justin Roberts is instead a brilliant pop songwriter who just happens to make music that’s appropriate for a younger audience.

Pop Fly is full of wonderful little gems, from the opening title track (about daydreaming in the outfield, natch) on through the heartbreakingly beautiful closer, “Fruit Jar,” which catalogs all of a father’s most important wishes for a child, and hits nary a false note in between. The arrangements are instantly accessible enough for little ears, but smart enough for discerning music lovers, and the production is full of nifty pop touches, like the tasty brass in the title track and “Backyard Super Kid,” or the subtle synths in “She’s a Yellow Reflector” and “Stay-At-Home Dad,” or the Beach Boys-inspired backing vocals in “Kickboard, Baby, Yeah,” or…well, you get the idea. Lyrically, it’s all very sweet stuff, delivered with Roberts’ endearingly square vocals, but none of it feels sugary — even when he’s singing about sisterly love (“She’s a Yellow Reflector”) or looking up to a dad (“Stay-At-Home Dad”) and grandmother (“From Scratch”), the songs come across as heartfelt rather than saccharine, which is a crucial distinction, especially if you make a habit of letting your kids take over the stereo.

In short, I love this album. In fact, I love it so much that Pop Fly ended up on my iPod, not just my daughter’s. I could go on, but that probably says it all, doesn’t it?

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