First Appeared in The Music Box, February 2007, Volume 14, #2
Written by John Metzger
Instead of pumping kids full of Ritalin, they simply ought to be prescribed a daily dose of Justin Roberts. A silly concept? Perhaps. Anyone who has seen the command that he holds over his audience of tiny tots and elementary school students, however, will be convinced otherwise. Roberts began a recent concert in Oak Park, Illinois, with I Chalk, the lead track from his latest outing Meltdown!, and watching a crowd of children rush to the front of the venue, where they remained utterly enthralled and fully participatory for the duration of the program, certainly was a sight to behold. Yet, it was the behavior of the adults — who bobbed their heads, danced around, and snatched up CDs and T-shirts like holiday shoppers scrambling for the last toy on the shelf — that tells the other side of the story.
So, what exactly is it about Roberts’ material that sets off an atmosphere of Beatle-mania whenever he performs? To put it simply, the guy has a knack for writing songs and lyrics that are as durable and affecting as those on Rubber Soul. In that sense, Meltdown! is no different, though the album also contains his most eclectic batch of tunes to date. Throughout the set, Roberts and producer Liam Davis (of Frisbie fame) offer a little bit of everything, acting like kids in a candy store as they glimpse their music from the possibility-filled perspective of a child. Imaginary Rhino, for example, is built upon a style of power pop that merges XTC with They Might Be Giants, and Sand Castle is draped lovingly with a Bacharach-ian arrangement. Elsewhere, Get Me Some Glasses is driven by a banjo-pickin’, country bounce, and More than Just a Minute is deeply indebted to Paul Simon’s brand of African-imbued folk. For the sake of the parents, he playfully alludes to Elvis Costello’s Radio Radio just as the horn-peppered I Chalk begins to fade away, while Modern English’s I Melt with You provides the inspiration for the title track. The bottom line, however, is that whether they are delivered with a punk-driven intensity or conveyed within the framework of a gently soothing lullaby, his pop-bent melodies are absurdly addictive, and they never grow tiresome.
The other half of the equation, however, is Roberts’ skill as a lyricist. Like it or not, the onset of adulthood typically yields a more jaded view of the world at large, but Roberts manages to keep his mind open and free. His songs appeal simultaneously to kids and their parents because within his work, childhood innocence dovetails with bittersweet reflection, thereby paving the way for a convergence of perspectives. Though a sibling is provoked and a crayon is used to draw on an inappropriate surface during Meltdown!’s title track, there’s no underlying mischief involved in the offender’s thought process. The behavior simply is born from the youthful nature of living in the moment,. When both baby brother and mom go ballistic, Roberts’ levity casts a common household situation in a new light, lending understanding to all of the involved parties. On Maybe the Monster, he uses empathy to turn a frightening thought into something touching, while Get Me Some Glasses takes the sting out of what could be a traumatic experience.
Not since the dawning of Sesame Street has there been a consistent source of music that not only is hip enough to fit within the framework of popular culture, but also is capable of relaying important messages to children without exuding a condescending attitude. The fact that he can teach parents a thing or two as well is just the icing on the cake. Roberts’ material may be aimed at kids, but he’s one of the smartest, wittiest, and inventive songwriters working today.
Of Further Interest...
Meltdown! is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box