Having followed the kids’-music scene fairly closely for some years now, I sometimes forget that its foremost practitioners aren't in fact world-famous, even just among parents. So when I hear that someone like Justin Roberts has a new album out, it takes me a moment to remember that every parent in the U.S. may not instantly know, too.
But they probably should. Roberts’s past work has placed him in the highest echelon of the genre ever since his first children’s release in 1998; even if you didn’t know it, you’ve probably seen him performing interstitials on Nick Jr. from time to time. And his seventh release, Jungle Gym, is up to his high standard—my first thought on hearing its first track, the lilting “2 x 4,” was “Man, he’s a pro.”
For the uninitiated, Roberts was among the first wave of musicians to import the indie-pop sound that has since taken over much of kiddie rock; his vocals have an earnest quality that sounds a bit like Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. His lyrics are clever (the rhymes) and simple (the subject matter) all at once, and always flow through the songs lightly and easily, with nothing forced. On Jungle Gym, Roberts focuses on the experiential, providing kid’s-eye viewpoints on subjects like snow days, fire drills, and signing casts, and he gets the tone of a typical child’s reactions to these slices of life just right.
And the music on Jungle Gym is as catchy and energetic as ever. Upbeat songs like “Obsessed by Trucks” and “We Go Duck” will get your kids moving, but they also contain enough layered harmonies and complex underscoring to keep adult eavesdroppers happy. It’ll parents of a certain age in mind of the poppier sides of REM, Nick Lowe, and Robyn Hitchcock—or even, occasionally, of both the adult and kids’ music of They Might Be Giants.
[Image courtesy of Justin Roberts; photograph © Todd Rosenberg 2010]