After some much needed time off, genre-jumping songwriter Chris Simpson and his new band offer up a debut that makes you re-evaluate your "best of the year" album list.
While some could label his stylistic leapfrogging as mere impulsive reinvention, for most people Chris Simpson's musical track record would seem to suggest he has a difficult time getting comfortable. Once upon a time, the Austin, Texas, native fronted the band Mineral, a '90s indie rock outfit that helped grandfather the modern emo genre. Shortly after the release of their second album, End Serenading, the group signed a deal with Interscope and looked to be gaining some needed commercial steam. Unfortunately, Simpson disbanded Mineral, and a third record never came to fruition. Still in his early twenties, Simpson moved on to a new project, the Gloria Record. Together with Mineral bassist Jeremy Gomez and some new recruits rounding out the line-up, Simpson's sound moved away from the melodic angst he helped pioneer and headed in a direction that was more ambient, opting for the dreamy crests of shoe-gazing. After a while, however, even this new musical direction grew to be unsatisfactory for Simpson. Midway through the recording of the Gloria Record's fourth release, Simpson initiated a definitive hiatus on everything, virtually disappearing from music altogether for two years.
Becoming All Things, Simpson's first full-length album since his self-imposed departure, is a testament to time off's recuperative influence. Working with his new musical collective, Zookeeper -- whose massive, rotating line-up includes both former bandmates and new collaborators -- Simpson's latest stylistic venture is one of unceremonious community. Becoming All Things is far more informal than anything Simpson has ever put together. Spending several months recording songs that were often live sessions done in one take, Zookeeper's sound, rich in honky-tonk and impromptu country swill, is layered in the looseness of instrumental jams, rambunctious brass, and swaggering earnestness. The album's flaws and fault facilitate into function. And while at times the compositions feel as though they may unravel at any moment, becoming cluttered in their own excess, the tracks are sustained by the group's homespun energy.
The tone is beautifully set with the album's opener, "Snow in Berlin". Foregoing any kind of rigid count off, Simpson starts off with a verbal gesture, speaking plainly, "OK. Here we go". As drums and jangling guitars keep the rhythm, and trumpets, pianos, keys, and organs jut in and out of audio focus, the song's rollicking exuberance feels like something straight out of some jolly-slosh bar, where the biblical phrase "Drink and be merry" carries as much weight as the Ten Commandments. The song's atmospheric bliss draws from what the Band instilled in their catalog of work and Springsteen impressively pulled off while making We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. The arrangement moves with a freedom that is instantly infectious.
Zookeeper's jamboree untidiness continues with the unkempt soul of songs like "Trumpets" and "Ballad of My Friends". Whether it’s the way the former slowly burns with plinking piano keys alongside Simpson's syllable-stretching vocals, or the way the latter rallies with its downbeat stomp, the band accepts everything as it is. Even when Simpson and his cohorts move the tempo to a crawl, offering up wonderfully drowsy ballads such as "Boy & the Street Choir", "On High", and the album's grandiose title track, it comes out candidly and democratically. One of the best aspects about listening to Zookeeper is that they make you feel included, as though you yourself could just as easily have been in that big, spacious room shaking on a tambourine or rattling a percussion shaker. And if you were empty-handed, they'd simply ask you to clap your hands with the beat, recording and incorporating every last bit of it.
The biggest qualm some pop purists may inevitably have with Zookeeper's debut is that many of its ten tracks extend well over the five-minute mark. Their extended play, however, is just another element to the album's carefree production. Simpson and his crew allowed each arrangement to be unforced, to go somewhere on its on time.
Becoming All Things is ultimately a wonderful do-over for Simpson. Even if the songwriter's fickle reputation were so inclined to rear its ugly head and once again have him cut and run on to some other genre, this particular album would stand alone as a brilliant time capsule.