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Room To Breathe
by Michael Snyder
Cincinnati Enquirer, Cincinnati, OH
Sep 22nd, 1999

Long-winded jamming frequently overwhelms the songs themselves at John Popper's day job: singer and virtuoso harmoni-cat for the roots-rockin' band Blues Traveler. Nonetheless, he came up with a strong, eclectic selection of tunes for his debut solo album.

Although the portly Popper is no pin-up, it's heartening to report that his lack of teen-idol looks hasn't had an adverse effect on his career. Blues Traveler, with six albums released since 1990, have sold more than 12 million records. And Popper, with his prodigious mouth-organ gymnastics and a mellow voice that's easy on the auditory canal, is a primary factor in the group's popularity.

His strengths are evident on Zygote, but they are in the service of quirky, literate material - most of it written by Popper - that reaches beyond Blues Traveler's emblematic boogie-pop style. For instance, the boisterous lead track, "Miserable Bastard", is sung from the standpoint of a gleefully treacherous protagonist. Despite its churning, locomotive guitar part and a few of Popper's torrential harmonica solos, it's a much darker ride than the usual Blues Traveler fare.

Then Popper turns around and delivers lilting ballads such as "Once You Wake Up" - a provocative piece of self-examination and philosophy - and "How About Now". The latter, with music written by blues guitar wunderkind Jonny Lang, is a delicate bid for a woman's affection that opens with Popper invoking screen goddess Audrey Hepburn.

Throughout Zygote you get the sense of an intricate mind at work.

Popper, who also plays lead guitar and flute on the album, is backed by Dave Matthews Band drummer Carter Beauford and members of an ensemble known as Cycomotogoat. Vocally, he has never sounded more in command, and his songs have never seemed so personal and heartfelt as they do here.

Anchored by Rob Clores' rolling piano, "Growing in Dirt" and "Home" are pithy reflections on life and survival in a harsh world. "His Own Ideas" bops along, bright and loopy, with Popper rolling out tongue-in-cheek lyrics and stretching out on a bluesy acoustic-guitar jam.

What may be most notable about the album is the bleak tone pervading some of the tracks. "Evil In My Chair" is an anxious lament that scurries forward with a paranoid's fervor. "Lunatic," a mordant 12-bar blues, is marked by Popper's harmonica moaning in the distance like a bitter wind.

Popper at least offers hope on "Fledgling," the final number on the album, encouraging the young to spread their wings and fly. Popper sings his lesson with so much passion and plays such a rousing guitar solo on the coda that it makes you glad he flew the Blues Traveler coop to record this project.