self titled – John Popper Project featuring DJ Logic
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Along with Phish and Widespread Panic, Blues Traveler did more than anyone to help kick-start the second generation jamband movement. However, sometime since those early H.O.R.D.E. outings, Blues Traveler, and John Popper more specifically, began veering towards pop, eventually crossing over completely with 1994’s Four. Unlike their peers, however, Blues Traveler’s gradual move towards the mainstream always seemed somewhat natural, mostly because Popper is such a charismatic frontman. Blues Traveler’s change in direction, if not its sound, fashioned the group an odd step-uncle to the jam-world, filled with stories from the days-of-yore, yet disconnected from the scene’s current climate.
Almost 20 years into his career, Popper has rediscovered his groove with the John Popper Project, a new, improv-oriented quartet also featuring DJ Logic, later-day Traveler bassist Tad Kinchla, and Mosaic drummer Marcus Bleeker. Growing out of series of chance encounters between Popper and Logic, the Project has a decidedly free-form feel, though one firmly rooted in the pop-rock sound Popper perfected well over a decade ago. The quartet’s self-titled debut album, offers a nice balance between Logic’s urban grooves and Popper’s well-constructed lyrical compositions. In fact, it’s the ying-and-yang mix of hip-hop and pop which makes the disc so infectious, spawning enjoyable ear candy like the sing-a-long, “Everything.”
Its also worthwhile to note that John Popper Project featuring DJ Logic is only the harpist’s second proper solo album outside Blues Traveler. Given that Popper remains Traveler’s primary creative force, one could argue that a solo record would closely resemble his group’s sound. And one would be right. Popper’s pet projects have by-and-large been slight variations on Blues Traveler’s stock formula: his early solo gigs allowed Popper to test out future Blues Traveler tunes, while 1999’s Zygote found him playing guitar over similar song structures. Similarly, John Popper Project featuring DJ Logic sounds like a Blues Traveler record remixed with DJ Logic’s beats and scratches.
Perhaps the biggest problem with a modern Blues Traveler record is that is sounds like it’s still 1994 (not that, given our current political/economic/social climate that is necessarily a bad thing). And, while many one of Popper’s upbeat songs could easily fit on an early Blues Traveler record, DJ Logic’s live remixing adds a decidedly modern twist to this disc. Bleeker’s sparse beats help open the group’s compositions for this treatment, including the dark, harmonica showcase “Horses” and the album’s raw closer, “Pack Your Love.” The groovy “Morning Light” sets the Project in a jazzier context, allowing Logic to tap into his often latent downtown avant garde energy. Lyrically John Popper Project featuring DJ Logic is also a shade darker than a modern Blues Traveler record. “Lapdance,” the album’s opening track and ripest single, bustles with swampy, strip-club vibes, while “Horses” and its Disneyland allusions are fueled by perverse energy. Even the Warren Haynes-enhanced “Louisiana Sky” is cut with hip-hop beats and a full-on, but at times awkward, vocal rap.
While the release of a studio album is a declaration of independence for the John Popper Project, the group will inevitably always be compared to Blues Traveler and its legacy. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, since the same charisma which helps Popper guide Blues Traveler adds a familiar charm to his new Project — like running into an old friend in the city years after college graduation. And, with a solid album under their belts, the John Popper Project will no doubt help repave the path Popper first charted in Princeton, NJ two decades ago and lead the group well into a hip-hop fueled future.