On his latest CD, "Way Out," Chicago children's artist Justin Roberts reaches for an older audience. Second-graders, third-graders -- you know, older. We're talking elementary school here.
The onetime indie rocker, who began writing songs for kids during a stint as a Montessori preschool teacher, is one of a handful of young musicians who are wrestling the genre out of Barney's squishy grasp. (Better-known contemporaries on the hip kids'-music circuit include Ralph Covert and Dan Zanes.) Roberts's fourth CD finds him as wry and tuneful as ever, but much like an older child, it's more complicated and a lot noisier.
Consider that nearly all the new disc's song titles are sources of prepubescent anxiety: "Picture Day," "Day Camp," "Doctor, Doctor." In "Airplane of Food," the disc's most infectious tune, an increasingly exasperated older sibling cajoles his baby brother to eat something -- anything. Roberts adopts a kid's point of view in these and other tunes, skirting the cloying tone found in so much children's music. Not that he doesn't aim to teach. As on past discs, several of the songs posit worrying scenarios -- going to get shots at the doctor, misplacing a lost tooth -- that resolve themselves in the end. But Roberts is never patronizing. (After all, this is someone who titled a children's album, "Not Naptime!" You never wonder whose side he's on.)
Perhaps Roberts has heard one James Taylor comparison too many, but there are more rave-ups than wind-downs on "Way Out." Unlike much of his previous material, these uptempo songs are unlikely to do double duty as lullabies, a change that allows them to keep pace with their big-kid lyrics. There are also some playful stylistic experiments in the mix: unexpected Beach Boys harmonies pop up on "Day Camp," and the title track is set to a jaunty calypso beat.
Like 1998's "Great Big Sun," Roberts's new CD includes a witty reinterpretation of a classic fairy tale. As he tells it in "Humpty's at It Again," Humpty is a visionary who sees things from his wall that others can't. "If you only knew about this view!" he swoons as he's picked up for the umpteenth time. Even if you don't buy the premise, it's hard to knock a song about Humpty Dumpty in which all the king's horses and all the king's men call 911 and complain, "That crazy egg is at it again!"
-- Nicole Arthur
Appearing Saturday at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn and Sunday at Iota. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Justin Roberts, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8109. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)