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OCTOBER 11, 1999: 

John Popper Zygote (A&M)

There's a lot to John Popper.

Most recall the way he nearly swallowed his harmonica playing "Runaround" for screaming, adoring fans as the frontman of Blues Traveler. The band that made it okay for blues to borrow pop's wide-reaching influence sold 12 million copies of their records and gave poor Paul a run for his money by playing for David Letterman more than any other band -- 14 times. You can thank him for co-founding the H.O.R.D.E. festival and congratulate him on selling out Madison Square Garden on New Year's Eve two years ago, but John Popper's got a history that dwarfs all that.

A press release accompanying his new CD, Zygote, details the X-Files upbringing of the rippling tenor. He was stolen from his parents by Shriners, fed a diet of muskrat flesh and day-old gin-soaked bread -- in short, things to make the young lad depressed. He underwent a systematic government experiment in which his heart was broken every third day in the hopes of creating the ultimate blues musician. Did the project work? Is John the result of a covert operation to finally create the mojo of a modern-day rock-bluesman? Although I know the gypsies and secret police may read my words and my life may hang on this review, I say yes and no.

Exhibit A: "Miserable Bastard," the first song on Zygote. One imagines a Phish-like crowd jerking back and forth to this upbeat jam. With tricky bass plucking and a steady synthesizer beat, Popper turns the tables and starts breaking a few hearts himself, singing, "I use love like fuel/The pain it drives my engine. I never wanted to hurt her/But it came so easily/unaware of what I'm taking, I can effortlessly crush." Is Popper the true blues musician in this song? Not in a traditional sense of a few guitar plucks, eyelids closed from the searing pain of my-woman-done-did-me-wrong. But who really needs tradition when you've got a beat you can dance to?

Exhibit B: "Lunatic," a swaggering, pitying, tried-and-true blues song, complete with whining, seagull-sounding tremolo. "Move on/And shuffle off/Winter's gift/Is a burning cough." Lost and melancholic, Popper's voice is strong, yet never overpowering, with an almost-metronomic dominant beat. There's an ominous sound in the chorus, "And, he bides his time, yes, he bides his time." Perhaps inspired by the story of his Pretender-like upbringing, listeners can easily envision Popper escaping the scientists' clutches, looking over his shoulder while walking down a foggy, rainy city street, singing, "He thinks he may fool everyone/And they give/And let him live/In the bright hot sun." It's a dramatic song. Think Jean Val Jean wandering in Les Miserables' sewer.

Don't expect to hear a new John Popper on Zygote. He opted to stick with what made him loved by so many people. Popper is a musician for everyone, from hippies to suits. Your mom might even like this CD, as well as your brother who listens to Jay-Z. It wins because the stories are strong throughout -- laced by the bizarre tale of a government cover-up to design the überbluesman. And because it's full of the kind of emotion that's absent from the synthetic, all-too-common Backstreet bullcrap that's so popular these days. -- Ashley Fantz

Saxophone Orchestra, Fathom This: A Retrospective (Whaleco)

A retrospective? Why haven't I, a connoisseur of novelty (bands, bathroom deodorizers, so forth), heard of these people before now? How should I feel? Bewildered? Betrayed?

Who cares lets have fun! But wait: I don't want to give the impression that Fathom This is a nonstop collection of goofy-assed covers of jazz, Tin Pan Alley standards, and marching fare, though the album is most certainly not lacking in those departments. Instead, I want to say: Who cares lets have fun!

All right, give me one more shot: Fathom This displays serious craftsmanship, particularly along the lines of trad arranging skills. Blah, blah, blab. Look, Fathom This is not high art (World Saxophone Quartet), and it's not pseudo/faux art/"fake jazz" (Combustible Edison, ¡Esquivel!, old Lounge Lizards). But, if you like this sort of thing in the first place, it is worth your while.

Good clean fun! -- Stephen Grimstead

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