John Popper, the iconoclastic harmonica-playing singer and front-man of Blues Traveler, has always been a melodic pop tunesmith, despite the band’s hard rock edge and improvisational bent. Whether exemplified in such popular Traveler songs as “Sweet Pain”, “Hook”, or “Runaround”, or in listening to his more straight-forward rock solo album Zygote, released in 1999, he’s had a flare for melodic, radio-friendly and hook-laden hits, while much of what he records with Blues Traveler tends to also reflect the rock sensibilities of his band mates and its audience.
Popper exposes his tuneful, sweet, and looser pop-rock leanings on the eponymous John Popper & the Duskray Troubadours, a side project that includes keyboardist Jono Manson, a long time mentor and friend who first took in Popper and his Traveler mates when the Jersey boys arrived in NYC in the late ‘80s. In that way, it certainly feels like a collaboration that has been a long time coming, as well as a dept repaid. The 12-track CD also gives Popper opportunity to expand his songwriting skills by collaborating with writers outside of the Blues Traveler circle.
Several songs here are giddy in the blissful throes of love. The upbeat and fast moving “Love Has Made It So” mixes chiming guitars and a sugary rush of vocals chorused together, Popper’s harmonica bridge mid-song, and concludes with an amped harp on the chirpy melody. “A Lot Like You” is a hushed, mellow acoustic lovers ballad. Written by George Bacon and a bit too saccharine, it would have been wise to have turned this one over to a more competent vocalist, as Popper struggles with the cheesy, soft, sensitive style of singing. Both “What Can I Do for You” and “All the Way Down” are similarly sentimental, the latter a co-write between Manson and Popper and the better of the two, as it features a strong vocal chorus and amped, swirling harp epilogue.
Several songs reflect heartbreak and life’s struggles. “Make It Better”, written by guitarist Aaron Beavers, features his wailing, weepy guitar alongside Popper’s harrowing harmonica and bellowing vocals. “Hurt So Much” is intoned with the joy of finally falling head over heals in love and not being able to let it go, and then being pulled away from that love and left with only a memory of love’s grace.
The songs that sound best, however, are those with Popper’s indelible stamp all over them. “Bereft” is a slow, burning and aching blues number, with brushed percussion and Manson’s doleful guitar echoed by Popper’s bawling vocal ache and mournful harmonica wail throughout. Despite an upbeat and funky tone, thanks in part to swirling organ, “Tone Tread on Me” lyrically reflects the current economic crisis: “Sherman’s got a shekel / Yoshi’s got a yen / And Candy’s on the corner / ‘Cause everybody needs a friend”. And closer “Leave It Up to Fate” has a blazing fast tempo and fiery guitar and harmonica vamp that wouldn’t be at all out of place on any Blues Traveler record.
John Popper & the Duskray Troubadours might just be summed up in one pop song, however. A co-write between Manson, Popper, and Chris Baron of Spin Doctors fame—a band which also came up at the same time and in the same NYC scene with Popper and Manson—“Something Sweet”, the first single, references their collective NYC roots: “I never worked so hard just to make ends meet / And 2nd Avenue seems like a dead-end street”, Popper bellows, perhaps wondering aloud if the improvisational music scene that arose from that neighborhood has paid off for anyone beyond their respective 15 minutes. Yet, the candy-coated melody and chorus on the final verse seems to acknowledge the pure bliss of a pop song:
Play me something sweet
That will not break or bend
Something that could carry me along
On days when friends can’t even help a friend
Let the song inside you
Rise and grow and then
Play me something sweet
And your sweet song
Will help me smile again