John Paul Jones, Zooma
It's a curious thing; if someone gave you the new CD from former Led Zeppelin bass player John Paul Jones, you'd expect it to be heavy on the bass, and chock full of dinosaur-rock type tunes. And that's precisely what it seems like at first listen. With no vocals to be found anywhere, the nine tracks come off as a play-along CD for aspiring rock guitarists looking to sharpen their riffs. Maybe it was the humidity that made me cranky, wishing to toss another CD on the reject pile. I figured the next time I heard one of these tunes it would be backing sports highlights on a cable channel.
But Jones is not your ordinary head-banging bass player. His three-page résumé gives evidence of this, listing his credits as player, composer, arranger, and producer on myriad projects since 1960, when at age fourteen he joined his father's dance band as organist and choirmaster. And the new music deserves close inspection. Jones plays a variety of instruments, including 4, 10, and 12-string basses, even a bass lap steel, with several cuts featuring just him and a drummer.
The opening cut, "Zooma," starts slowly enough, with the sounds of waves and seagulls, quickly giving way to a roar, followed by Jones's frantic fingering on a 10-string bass. Paul Leary rips in with heavy descending chords and ultimately, what the liner notes refer to as a "sick guitar solo." No need to check the map; you're in metal land now.
"Goose," the fourth cut on the CD, begins sounding like Led Zeppelin, with Pete Thomas pounding the drums as Jones lays out a throbbing line on the bass, only to take a left turn when he rips away a solo on a lap steel, eventually sliding into dissonance. For sparseness, "Bass 'n' Drums," the following cut, is just that, sounding like a warm-up or a sound check.
And that's pretty much the way it goes. Songs begin with a basic pattern that Jones lays down, and then spread out. Kind of like a well-polished jam session. There are surprises here and there, notably the string section from the London Symphony Orchestra, arranged and conducted by Jones himself, sitting in on one cut. On some songs you'll hear traces of the old Zeppelin, whether it's a hint of "Kashmir" or a touch of "Nobody's Fault But Mine." On others, you'll wonder if maybe vocals would have helped. Some of the tunes will sink in after a while, while others just sink. But if you're watching sports highlights some night and start rocking your head, it just might be...
John Popper, Zygote
John Popper, harmonica-breathing front man of Blues Traveler, takes a stab on his own. Collecting some pals, Crugie Riccio on guitar, Dave Ares on bass, Rob Clores on keyboards, and lifting drummer Carter Beauford from the Dave Matthews Band, the result is a respectable effort, 12 tunes ranging from funky bluesy rock to slow moving ballads.
One might wonder why Popper would want to release a solo album. But the flame to be a musician ignited while watching the Blues Brothers movie continues to burn in Popper, and at times rages like an inferno. Aside from six albums with Blues Traveler, selling over twelve million records since 1990's first effort (and look for another next year), being a founder of the HORDE (Horizons of Rock Developing Everywhere) festival in 1992, showing up in movies, and appearing on the Letterman show left and right, maybe Popper didn't feel his life was complete.
Conspicuously absent is the rapid-firing harmonica that is Popper's trademark. It's there alright, and surfaces on a few tracks, though not as pervasive as you'd expect. When it's time for a solo break, such as on the opening track, "Miserable Bastard," a seven-plus-minute funk-based blues rocker, Popper doesn't let the listener down, peppering the track with notes fast enough to make your head spin.
Track two, "Once You Wake Up," a mid-tempo ballad, shows the softer side of Popper. With a fat Fender Rhodes keyboard sound bouncing in stereo, and a heavily chorused guitar running single note riffs, Popper belts it out enough for this year's crop of college kids to get introspective when they play it over and over.
Which they will, as will a lot of people. There's a good mix of songs here, from slow-pulsing blues, to folky rockers, even a nod to Santana with "Evil in My Chair." Popper's brought together a good crop of musicians, written some good material, and pulled the reigns on his harmonica where necessary. Though in some spots his vocals might waver, overall, the effort deserves an "A." The only question for Popper now is, what to do next. Stay tuned.