Zookeeper – Zookeeper EP

Here’s what I think. Anyone, regardless of pedigree, life experience, and musical expertise should be forced to take an intelligence test before they’re allowed to write a pop album. If they’re not quite up to snuff, that’s fine; they can still make their album, put a nice sunny picture on the cover, and tour around the country brightening people’s days, as long as that album is entirely instrumental. I’m so sick of great songs falling apart when the singer uses 18 words that rhyme with love. And, usually, these songwriters know a thing or two about melody, so why not just play to your strengths?

Why not, Chris Simpson?

I don’t know exactly what happened between Mineral and your current project Zookeeper, but somehow “I just want to be something more than the mud in your eyes I want to be the clay in your hands” turned into “Believe in the mess we are / Conceive in the mess we are / [and, of course…] Find peace in the mess we are.”  This 5 track EP contains four tracks of beautiful, diverse, fun pop music that I could not be more ashamed to sing along to; the lyrics are just that underwhelming. And things start off so promisingly. Opener, “I Live In the Mess You Are,” (which provided the above lyrical nugget), starts with an alarm clock, and manages to repeat the same melody, nearly unchanging, for its 4 plus minute runtime, without losing momentum or becoming grating. The reason for this is the layers. Sure, a guitar plucking out the same chords over and over gets boring, but when you add in 5 or 6 backup singers, at least two drummers, banjo, and, why not, a pot and pan player, things get more interesting. “Tax Collector” is equally pleasant in it’s ambling pace, and things really get interesting on the jazzy “Flood of Love,” with floating keyboards and perfectly placed horns, the kind you don’t notice until the third or fourth listen but then smile at every time they rise up in the mix. Closer “Delivery Room” is a triumphant piano led hoedown down with just the perfect type of pounding drums, and surprisingly successful off key bridge.

But, for me at least, it all comes back to the lyrics, most perfectly exemplified by the album’s weakest track, “Two-Part Invention,” which not only strips down to just Simpson and a piano, it also inexplicably bathes itself in distorted vocals and awful warping which attempt to create a retro 60s pop sound but just irritate. I hate it when reviewers isolate 5 word snippets from lyrics, trying to prove a song’s worth or lack thereof, but giving a full stanza certainly doesn’t work in Simpson’s favor.  

See how the chips fall where they may
How my lips sink ships, drift astray
How I’ve missed you, I’ve been a bad boy
But seventeen, it takes forever and me
I was already on fire, dreaming with angels

The song’s beautiful last words “God, she was my melody” do what they can to repair the damage done by “I’m coming to get you, but I’m running so slow, like a dream,” but they just can’t do it.

I’m enough of a pop punk fan that I don’t expect insight with every line. Normally, with pop music, I want something to sing along to,  to bob my head to. I like the music on Zookeeper’s debut enough to call this EP promising, as long as I can get a promise for a return to Simpson’s Mineral level-lyrical abilities, or, at least, one or two instrumentals.

(Belle City Pop)

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