A Style review Wednesday of John Popper's new album misidentified the location of his upcoming show. Popper will perform at the Garage on Sept. 21. (Published 09/17/1999)
Any vocalist who records apart from a band he's long been associated with faces a dilemma: Maintain a familiar sound and you virtually ensure that longtime fans will follow, or deviate and risk alienating that core audience. Chris Cornell and John Popper--lead singers for modern rock staples Soundgarden and Blues Traveler, respectively--travel decidedly divergent paths on their first solo albums.
Soundgarden disbanded amicably in 1997, and Cornell has maintained a low profile since then. That's surprising only because Cornell was one of alt-rock's most distinctive voices, his shrieking wail closer to old-fashioned metal mayhem than the grunge angst Soundgarden and its fellow Seattle bands came to be associated with.
There's very little of the Soundgarden sound on "Euphoria Morning" (A&M/Interscope). Instead, Cornell reveals himself on several tracks as an introspective singer-songwriter, and on another one as a Ray Charles acolyte. In fact, the album serves up material with more range and subtlety than one might expect. Which is not to say it's depression-free: There are plenty of downcast hearts and restless souls in such songs as the swirling "Follow My Way," the numbing "Steel Rain" and "Disappearing One."
In "Steel Rain," the singer alternates between resilience and surrender to romantic sorrow ("And so we start another day together/ You and I and a million miles between us"). There's a bluesy ennui to "Disappearing One," and a palpable longing for the disappeared in "Wave Goodbye," a sorrowful tribute to the late singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley.
Cornell, who performs at the 9:30 club Friday, also reveals a Beatles influence on the brightly melodic "Can't Change Me." There's also the psychedelic buzz of "Flutter Girl," which nearly masks its foreboding warning to stay away, and "Preaching the End of the World," a seductive impending-Apocalypse personal with a pleading chorus--"I'm seeking a friend for the end of the world"--is reminiscent of classic Queen.
Other surprises include the solo acoustic title track--a delicate yet testy rumination on failed romance--and the keyboard-driven "When I'm Down." On the latter, Cornell unveils a rough-hewn R&B vocal style suggestive of Ray Charles as he grumbles, "I only love you when I'm down/ And I'm only near you when I'm gone/ But one thing for you to keep in mind . . . / I'm down all the time."
On about half the tracks, Cornell shares writing and production credits with Alain Johannes and Natasha Schneider, former members of the band Eleven who first worked with him on "Sunshower" from the "Great Expectations" soundtrack. It's a new partnership that bodes well for the future.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8153.)
John Popper: 'Zygote'
John Popper's debut solo album, "Zygote" (A&M/Interscope), suggests you can take the man out of the jam band but you can't take the jam band out of the man. On the other hand, you can mix up the jam bands a little: The drummer on "Zygote" is Carter Beauford, who regularly drives the Dave Matthews Band. The other three musicians--guitarist Grugie Riccio, bassist Dave Ares and keyboardist Rob Clores--are from an obscure punk-pop band called Cycomotogoat.
And while Popper's appealing harp playing is prominently featured on a number of tracks, he also steps forward on guitar more than he does with Blues Traveler. Still, the album is hardly a stretch from the norm, particularly the opening "Miserable Bastard," built around taut harp and guitar vamps and stretching out to almost eight minutes. It goes on, albeit bearably. But "Tip the Domino" devolves into a faceless jam, and when Popper insists he's got "His Own Ideas," you wish they were fresher.
Or less familiar: The spooky blues "Evil in My Chair"--which could be about drug addiction or romantic futility--is a tad too reminiscent of "Black Magic Woman," while "Growing in Dirt" has the roiling melodic urgency and lyric obtuseness of mid-'80s R.E.M.
Among the strongest cuts: "How About Now," a spry, airy tale of frustrated devotion ("I just need to ask you if not when, how about now"); the lighthearted "Love for Free," a showcase for Popper's engaging vocals; and the soaring ballad "Home." His best effort, however, comes with another beautiful ballad, the fragile "Once You Wake Up," whose soothing sway recalls Ben E. King.
Popper also offers up two very strange tracks, "Lunatic" and "Fledgling." The first is an eerie evocation (with echoes of the Beatles' "She's So Heavy") of a madman biding his time, clearly ready to explode (it recalls the famous Kenneth Patchen poem "Wait!"). "Fledgling" is a mostly solo, piano-driven meditation in which Popper's vocal ornamentation is equal parts Aaron Neville and David Thomas. Like many of the songs on "Zygote," this one feels wide open to interpretation--could be about faith, could be about falling in love--but when Popper suggests that you "spread your wings and simply fall into the rushing air," you trust him. Almost.
John Popper performs Tuesday at the 9:30 club.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8154.)
CAPTION: The shrieks of Soundgarden are gone in Chris Cornell's first solo album.
CAPTION: John Popper, above, goes it alone on "Zygote," as does Chris Cornell on "Euphoria Morning."