Saturday, July 5, 2008

Justin Roberts' Pop Fly: A music review (and ode to liner notes)

It's a rare and beautiful thing when you can find music that children and parents can enjoy together.

One of our favorite artists inhabiting this tiny genre is alt-folk-rock-kids' musician Justin Roberts.

His songs are influenced by the pop-i-licious melodies and hooks of 70s and early 80s pop with a bit of acoustic roots thrown in for good measure.

His lyrics are unusually smart and funny for children's music, revealing a kid's point of view in everyday situations like having a buddy for a school field trip (See my teacher assigned him, but I really don't mind him.) and feeding a stubborn baby brother (C'mon baby brother, I know you're not in the mood. But won't you eat a little bit, eat a little bit of this airplane of food.).

And this lyric from Stay-At-Home-Dad:

At the park we get a lot of weird looks

He's wiping noses and he cleans and cooks

And when I'm standing at the top of the slide

All the Moms are freaking when he goes for a ride.

It's no wonder that parents of a certain age enjoy his music as much as the kids. When you listen to Imaginary Rhino for example, you hear a direct musical descendant of Orleans' Still the One or any song from that era where pop hits still were played on real instruments and had back up singers belting na, na, na during the chorus.

Other arrangements unironically feature the laid-back brass section of a Burt Bacharach song or buzzing synth-y power chords reminiscent of ELO or even Rick Springfield.

If I said that Justin Roberts is the kids' version of Fountains of Wayne, and that makes sense to you, then you know EXACTLY what Justin Roberts sounds like.

Last year we went to see him perform live at Twelve Galaxies in San Francisco's Mission District. Twelve Galaxies is a night club usually devoted to very loud bands you've never heard of with names like Flamingo Gunfight and Disastroid, so it was an odd and wonderful sight to see it on a Sunday afternoon, taken over by families.

Most of the parents seemed a bit nostalgic for the days when they would have been hanging out at a place like this on a regular basis, or just for the days when they were awake after 10 p.m.

Ben was a little uncertain at first, especially waiting for the show to start. But he recognized most of the songs, and while he wasn't quite ready to join the mosh pit of 6-year-olds at the front of the stage, he seemed to be enjoying himself by the end.

This week, Chris picked up Justin Robert's new album, Pop Fly, on CD. Since we obtain most of our music via digital downloads these days, this was Ben's first real introduction to liner notes.

Ben has always memorizes song lyrics by playing them over and over, just a few lines at a time until he's committed each line to memory. But he's always done it by ear.

As we listened to this album for the first time in the car this afternoon, we gave him the CD booklet with the song lyrics and he found he had a new, more effective way to learn the song, something that comes naturally to him: reading.

He listened to the first half of the title track Pop Fly over and over, reading the lyrics, moving his finger along the words in the booklet and singing along.

I remember how exciting it was to open a new album and to find that all the lyrics were printed inside, saving you the trouble of figuring them out yourself. I'd sit in my bedroom, listening, studying each song as it came on, reading along.

Of course, I wasn't reading liner notes when I was four. And Ben isn't listening to much Donna Summer.

Still, I loved seeing this door open for Ben - the connection between song lyrics and the printed word.

So, if you don't own any Justin Roberts albums, I urge you to check them out and perhaps you, too, will be soon belting out:

Is it a bird or a plane?

Should I pray for some rain or is it just a helicopter?

Suddenly I'm siezed by a horrible disease

Someone please, someone please

Call my family doctor

'Cause it's a

pop p-p-p-p-p-p

pop p-p-p-p-p-p pop fly, pop fly


Jordan said...

Mmmm, I love Justin Roberts. His music really is wonderful; I didn't realize he had a new album out, so thank you! He's a Chicago local so he's playing all the time at neighborhood festivals, bookstores, etc., which was one of the perks of moving here. Now if he and Dan Zanes both lived here, I'd be all set. ;-)

Great idea to have Ben read the liner notes; what a fun way for him to connect to the music!

Tim said...

Just got the CD today!
Not to take away from Roberts' tunesmithing and lyrics, but I'm pretty sure it's producer Liam Davis who creates those brilliant arrangements (that was Davis banging on the bongos and the keyboards at 12 Galaxies).

Anonymous said...

Ive never heard of Justin Roberts but I have heard of Disastroid numerous times.

Anonymous said...

Who is Justin Roberts? Give me more Disastroid!!

Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you! Justin is amazing. He is coming to the Bay Area on November 16,2008with his band The Not Ready for Naptime Players. He will be performing two shows at Foothill College's Smithwick Theater - 11am and 2pm. You can buy tickets online at

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