Review Summary: If nothing else, it’s better than Twin Forks.
Following up an emo band tends to be an odd venture. Mike Kinsella went on to write somber, down to earth acoustic ballads under the name Owen, Davey von Bohlen eventually formed the indie-pop group Maritime and Tim Kinsella went on to form Joan of Arc, which tends to defy categorization. The overarching theme here is the shift away from the preceding genre, as if emo were something to run away from in order to shed the skin of youth. It’s not unprecedented; no matter what period of emo the listener was immersed in, eventually we all have to replace our Promise Ring shirt and torn Chuck Taylors with clean oxford shirts and Allen Edmonds.
Perhaps former Mineral frontman Chris Simpson felt these winds of change as he became a father or husband. Zookeeper is Simpson’s new folk-oriented musical outlet, but don’t let your mind drift to the tired Americana folk pop, stomp-and-clap movement that birthed The Lumineers, Mumford and Sons and eventually Twin Forks, the resting place of former Dashboard Confessional frontman Chris Carrabba. The latter saw a significant amount of backlash for being so eager to hop the freight train juggernaut of Americana given his emo-laced past. Simpson sidesteps this issue entirely through deliberate passion and a jumping start on the folk pop crowd. The first Zookeeper EP was released in 2006, five years before Wesley Schultz and company would bellow “Ho Hey” over American airwaves. As a small project by a musician that no news outlet was following anymore, Zookeeper could have been anything. The result is a gospel-like, inviting affair that feels like a Saturday morning at home with loving family.
The five tracks which span the length of the Zookeeper EP are densely packed, tightly orchestrated songs that can be easily differentiated after a few listens. Opener “I Live In The Mess You Are” is an anthem of love in the face of imperfection. After spinning this track several times, it becomes difficult not to sing along with the infectiously cheery chorus. “We are walking around that graveyard, we are making love again. We are drinking in the sunlight, we are seeing if we can believe in the mess we are” croons Simpson in his familiar cracking but steady voice he pioneered in Mineral. While the primary instrument backing Simpson is guitar, this opening track contains a dense wall of sound, including clarinet that pokes through every now and then, providing subtle touches of life. It’s a subtle dynamic that provides a surprisingly potent effect upon the listener. The percussive and slightly more restrained “Tax Collector” follows. While the bombast is slightly more reined in, the pervading theme of happiness does not fade, and only grows stronger with track three, “Flood Of Love”. Opening with a sample of a radio show, the centerpiece of the album is a slow-burning crescendo that bursts open in its chorus. “Lover, let go and you will know the child delivered grows and builds an ark of junkyard hope” Chris wails, placing clearly on display the influence of his fatherhood on the record, which takes center stage on the closer, but not before one break in the saccharine tone.
“Two Part Invention” is a lo-fi piano ballad that may bring listeners back to some of the same feelings expressed by Mineral’s Endserenading. The repeated line “remember every little thing” crawls from Simpson’s throat, clawing its walls for the end of the chorus. The pain in Chris’ voice is almost tangible, recalling Mineral track “Palisade”. As the outro builds and fizzles out with some more excellent vocal work, the closing track “Delivery Room” begins with a piano line reminiscent of Buble’s “Haven’t Met You Yet”. The album’s opus, “Delivery Room” winds through an outline of life for a life that’s just beginning. The record’s best lyrical work takes place during this track, ending with a line that trails off into the atmosphere via Simpson’s falsetto. “See how all the rooftops drop beneath its balloons. No walls can hold you now, no more delivery room” he exclaims, welcoming new life into the world.
The emotional impact of becoming a father is on full display throughout the record, but the poignant picture created by the closer is heartwarming. It’s not often a record can convey such a sense of outward happiness, but the debut Zookeeper EP comes through in spades, and it seems all too aware of the emotions it wells up in its listeners. The warm feeling of home is embodied in its cover art, depicting breakfast in a classically appointed diner. On first listen, each song brings an all-at-once familiar tone that never feels grating. Perhaps more importantly, the highlighted theme of transitioning into adulthood and taking on its accompanying responsibilities couldn’t be more well-timed or fitting for an artist who left behind one of the most influential emo bands of all time.
While it can be easy for an artist to misstep when moving away from a comfortable genre, this EP is not evidence of that. By allowing his music to grow with him, Chris Simpson not only lived up to his previous works, but created what may be his best.