Willie Murphy and the Angel Headed Hipsters
Monkey in the Zoo
Atomic Theory 1125
There's a busy feeling to Monkey in the Zoo, like Murphy just can't contain his skittery ideas fast enough to stop them from jumping all over the music. To the singer-keyboardist-guitarist's credit, enough of them work to make this (marginally) blues album lively and refreshing.

Monkey in the Zoo opens with what initially sounds like a not-so-subtle homage to Michael Hill's Blues Mob. Murphy, in his more gnarly, Dr. John voice, uses reggae grooves to complain throughout "Keep on Rockin' the Boat" of corrupt politicians and corporations overruling the world. In the next song, he concludes, like a junior high school newspaper editorial, that "the world is a neighborhood."

As Murphy tries different techniques, though, his considerable energy starts to raise the songs past their sometimes-hackneyed lyrics. "Time (Is Running Out)" begins with a two-minute nursery rhyme naming all the types of time Murphy can think of; before you know it, the song coheres into an actual melody and its world-weary conclusion starts to make you think.

His seven-person band turns Wilson Pickett's soul classic "In the Midnight Hour" into something completely different. Its base is electric dub reggae, and Murphy chants the chorus like a robot instead of singing it the familiar way. It works, especially because the three horns play a tiny bit out of synch, giving the song a touch of dissonant jazz.

Maybe that's Murphy's secret: He wants to try everything, and he's lucky enough to have musicians who can do anything. Neville Brothers soul? No problem: a bouncy version of "Great Balls of Fire." Crazy George Clinton funk? Coming right up: "Kamikaze." Radio-friendly adult-contemporary ballads? "Open Letter" would sound just fine in the car. Murphy is no incredible visionary, but he's fun to follow.

-- Steve Knopper

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Boulder, CO, USA.