Justin Roberts, Meltdown!

Madelyn Rosenberg

By Madelyn Rosenberg

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Former preschool teacher Justin Roberts still sports what most barbershops call "a little boy's haircut." Tall and lanky with glasses, he's a full-grown Harry Potter who waves a guitar instead of a wand. The buzz around Roberts these days links him with the likes of Laurie Berkner and Dan Zanes, mostly because the three eschew the purple dinosaur wannabees that previously dominated children's music. Berkner, with a voice that is at once ballsy and beautiful, celebrates the physicality of song. Zanes, whose own voice is dressed in ragged folk, mines the music of an older America. But Roberts, whose voice is often compared to James Taylor's (if you don't agree, go back an album and listen to "Hey Hippopotamus") mines a child's psyche, making Meltdown! a proper cerebral leap for youngsters who are starting to pay real attention to lyrics. It's a nice beginning given that all too soon the lyrics that speak to them will have to do with being bored and dispossessed. (Though "Sandcastle," steeped in melancholy, had better really be about sandcastles — any alternative is just too painful.)

The fascinating fantasies of a grown-up Harry Potter

Most of Meltdown! is extraordinarily upbeat, with a few riffs that came of age when Roberts did with Pimentos for Gus, a play-it-all indie band of the '80s (college) and early '90s (after) — there's a nod to circa-1983 Modern English in the CD's title track while "More Than Just a Minute" invokes Paul Simon from his Graceland era.

In Justin Roberts 'world, "chalk" is a verb, imaginary rhinos hang out with you while you vacation in Albuquerque, and brothers and sisters argue and blame but love each other anyway. Sweet? We're talking chocolate cake with sprinkles, but there's nothing artificial; Roberts 'sincerity is palpable in every ba-ba-ba.