Album Review: Blues Traveler’s “Blow Up the Moon”
Remember how awesome Blues Traveler used to be their heyday? John Popper burst into the music scene like a harmonica-wielding Kool-aid Man. Blues Traveler has been putting out albums for years, but it’s been about a decade since anything even registered on the charts. Their biggest hit, “Hook”—little more than Johann Pachelbel’s “Canon and Gigue for 3 violins and basso continuo” with lyrics and caffeinated blues harp—was one of the most blatant and audacious musical rip-offs of all time (although Coldplay gets honorable mention for milking “Clocks” for every drop they could squeeze out of it, hoping that no one would notice them trying to pass it off twice by rewriting it as “Speed of Sound”).
Musical plagiarism aside, the band has been plagued by troubles. Interrupting the process of recording “Save His Soul,” Popper was injured in a motorcycle accident in 1992 and had to go on tour in a wheelchair. A&M Records, who had signed Blues Traveler in 1990, was assimilated by Universal Music Group’s Interscope Geffen A&M label group later that decade, and many artists were forcibly ejected. Bassist Bobby Sheehan fatally overdosed on a combination of cocaine, valium, and heroin in 1999. And a diabetic compulsive overeater, Popper was barely rescued from the brink of death with an emergency angioplasty after suffering a heart attack in 1999.
Despite these setbacks, Blues Traveler has always rambled on. However, their recent release, “Blow up the Moon,” does not so much ramble but rather stumbles into codependency, featuring a guest artist on every song. Sure, Popper can still sing and shred a harp with the best of them … but he may as well shred along to “Happy Birthday,” because the album has no consistency, no identity, and seemingly no point. Suggested alternate titles include “The Enigma of Mediocrity,” “Erectile Dysfunction,” and “A Dog Named Failure.”
If the opening track, “Hurricane,” were an actual tropical storm, it would be named “Hurricane Milhouse,” or maybe “Hurricane Urkel.” Stylistically, it falls into whatever no-man’s land lies between Bob Marley and Backstreet Boys. As if to drive the stake into the song’s heart fully, former NSYNC member JC Chasez makes an appearance, and Popper’s soulful, New Orleans accent mixes with Chasez’s ultra-caucasian vocals to create an aural peanut-butter-and-ketchup sandwich. It’s like Jason Mraz trying to fit in at an NRA convention. It’s like Woody Allen modeling for Abercrombie and Fitch. Just as there is no way to describe the taste of an apple, words simply fall short in attempting to illustrate the pure musical travesty of Popper’s harp flailing all over the place over a shiny cloud of Chasez’s na-na-nas.
Both “Castaway” and “Vagabond Blues” smash the withered remains of ska into a weird, kind-of-hip-hop-but-not-really framework. Dirty Heads and Sublime’s Rome Ramirez help hold these songs’ heads underwater for a full three minutes; fortunately, that is long enough to kill them for good. No one ever wanted to hear John Popper tweet a feeble melody over a silly white dude rapping irrelevancies.
How about Aretha Franklin and Anthrax sharing the studio at last? No, let’s try Vanilla Ice and Dwight Yoakam. Brace yourselves: Blues Traveler and Hanson. It’s not that “Top of the World” is the worst song ever. It’s just that it’s like waking up with a severed horse head in your bed. No thanks.
Plain White T’s, of “Hey There Delilah” fame, appear in “Nikkia’s Prom,” one of the least disastrous experiments on this album. While still rather vapid, it’s not entirely unlistenable. But Popper’s spastic harping really does get old: one bazillion notes are machine-gunned ADD-style into the air—and yet, for all their bombast, these solos still fall emotionally short of the solitary note Neil Young played in “Cinnamon Girl.”
Then there’s “Matador,” an homage to animal abuse. This redneck’s wet dream, featuring Thompson Square, is “sort of” country in that it glorifies recreational violence. Otherwise, this mangled spawn of rock and country embarrasses both of its parents. Yeehaw! Whatever. The Nashville couple unfortunately remains in the studio for “I Can Still Feel You,” in which we listen to a married Shawna Thompson musically cuckold her husband, Keifer, flirting grossly with Popper and leading listeners to disturbing mental images that can never be erased by any amount or combination of liquor and pills.
Secondhand Serenade (John Vesley) is featured on “The Darkness We All Need,” wherein Popper waxes poetic about … something. What is the darkness we all need? Maybe ask Kafka or Nietzsche. Maybe even Sartre. But don’t ask Popper. Vesley’s pretty-boy indie aesthetic is trampled by Popper’s usual artificially over-emotive inflection. But—thank Pan!—Popper lays down some relatively melodic harp, resisting the urge to zip up and down the thing at 180 mph like a methed-up Franz Liszt.
“Jackie’s Baby” seems to want to evoke something from another decade, be it John Mellencamp, Weezer, or even old Blues Traveler. But the reference is too vague to fully coalesce. Still, this cowrite between Popper and two members of New Hollow comes of far better than most of the others (read: less bad).
Next, another bizarre duet occurs, this time between Popper and Jewel (it’s okay to laugh), in “Hearts Are Still Awake.” The band seems to try and veer away from their natural grit as if to cater to her; but Jewel, herself lacking an identifiable style, is mostly engulfed—a beautiful little fly, drowning in a bowl of Blues Traveler soup. Garçon! There’s a Jewel in my soup!
Yet another pop-punk group, Bowling for Soup, enters the fray, confusing audiences everywhere in “I Know Right”—another awkward, gimmicky mutant. With hopelessly juvenile lyrics, like “LMFAO,” this track gets the 2015 Facepalm Award. Bowling For Soup remain, to Richard Marx’s chagrin, for “Right Here Waiting for You,” delivering yet another smoldering genre-wreckage. The coup de grace is “All the Way,” which throws us for one final loop by featuring actor Thomas Ian Nicholas of “American Pie” infamy. Who’d have guessed? Maybe Bob Saget and Tim Allen were already booked that weekend.
Is John Popper talented? You bet your astrolabe. So why the parade of couch surfers? Are all of Popper’s friends desperate for work? Is it just really boring being a rock star? Why this stomach-churning pop music smoothie? Should this one-trick pony be taken out back and shot? Constantly featuring artists is what a hopeful up-and-comer does in a desperate attempt to draw attention to him or herself: validation through association. I would think that Blues Traveler is not so insecure that they feel they must drag every person holding a guitar into the studio with them. Then again, “Blow up the Moon” totally just happened. There would have been far more artistic merit in actually detonating Luna—and it would have been a hell of a lot cooler.