Room To Breathe

With Dave Matthews Band drummer Carter Beauford.

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" (RealAudio excerpt), 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" (RealAudio excerpt). 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" (RealAudio excerpt)

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.