First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2008, Volume 15, #5
Written by John Metzger
Fri May 16, 2008, 06:30 AM CDT
As has been the case with all of his forays into the family music market, it takes a little while to acclimate fully to Justin Roberts’ latest effort Pop Fly. It’s not because he makes challenging albums, though. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. His melodies are so insistent and ingratiating that it sometimes is difficult to assess how durable they will be over the long haul, or, for that matter, how much depth lies beneath the sparkling surface of his sing-along choruses. With time, however, Pop Fly — like its predecessors — proves itself to be another gem from a songwriter who seemingly can do no wrong.
Generally speaking, Roberts’ stylistic approach has changed very little over the years. The biggest leap came between his sophomore set Yellow Bus and his third outing Not Naptime when he and producer Liam Davis found that the key to their longevity was to paint Roberts’ material with broader strokes from their sonic brush. Nevertheless, Roberts’ distinctive blend of folk, pop, country, and rock was present right from the start. Musically speaking, the differences among his various endeavors have occurred mostly in how he and Davis have chosen to color and shade them. On Way Out, for example, the duo simply turned up the volume and the velocity, placing a slightly heavier emphasis upon the punk-y sugar-rush that previously had crept through the title track to Yellow Bus as well as Brontosaurus Got a Sweet Tooth. The culmination of their efforts was Roberts’ 2006 endeavor Meltdown!, which quite neatly tied everything that had come before it together in one ridiculously irresistible package.
With Pop Fly, Roberts once again is on the move. Although his new songs essentially revolve around the same basic framework as those on his past efforts, it also is clear that Roberts has resisted the common urge to fall into a formulaic rut. As much as Meltdown! was a perfect synthesis of its predecessors, Pop Fly is a sublime attempt to break — or at least alter — the mold. It’s not a complete departure, of course: Giant-Sized Butterflies is reminiscent of Kitty Kat, Kitty Kat, and as always, there are odes to The Beatles and The Beach Boys lurking just about everywhere.
Regardless, Roberts reinvents himself by discovering new ways of smashing his influences together. Although his songs still sound comfortable, they also unfold in ways that aren’t entirely predictable. There’s an undeniable Fountains of Wayne-style flair to She’s a Yellow Reflector — which comes complete with a sophisticated, horn-dappled, Burt Bacharach-ian refrain. Elsewhere, elements of late-era XTC tickle the insides of Pop Fly’s title track as well as the plucked-violin introduction to The Backyard Super Kid, while Henrietta’s Hair is a hilarious mash-up of Dan Bern, Bob Dylan, and The Pogues. Rather than simply copping moves from his record collection, though, Roberts seamlessly assimilates them into his work, which is one of the many reasons his albums are always so delightful.
Lyrically, it seems, with each passing outing, as if Roberts is targeting a slightly older crowd. His first few endeavors covered the basics by situating gentle lullabies alongside playful songs that were designed to teach the alphabet as well as how to count. Since then, he gradually has moved outward advancing from toddlers to preschoolers to elementary-age children, and appropriately, he has addressed bigger issues along the way. Pop Fly continues this trend, and although cuts like Stay-at-Home Dad and The Backyard Super Kid are relatively universal, other tracks — such as Big Field Trip, She’s a Yellow Reflector, and Kickboard, Baby, Yeah — conjure images that those who have grown up listening to his work are just beginning to experience now. This progression likely is a reflection of the insights that Roberts has gleaned from the lives of his own kids, but it also serves as a clever marketing ploy. As his fans have aged, his material has moved right along with them, which, in turn, has allowed him to maintain his relevancy while simultaneously building a catalogue of material that is suited to each stage of a child’s life.
For the record, the material on Pop Fly isn’t quite on par with the songs on Meltdown!, though admittedly such a statement is akin to saying that Revolver isn’t quite as good as Rubber Soul. Roberts wrote songs for adults long before he was performing for families. It’s telling that Pop Fly’s best tune is From Scratch, a loving ode to his grandmother that, in a fashion that is typical of Loudon Wainwright, counters the humor he displays elsewhere with honest, heartfelt sincerity. More than anything, it makes the case that if he safely can navigate through the adolescent years, Roberts just might find his way back to penning adult-oriented fare with a sizeable following in tow. How’s that for building an audience from the ground up?
Of Further Interest...
Pop Fly is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2008 The Music Box