Music Review: Berkley II by Zeke Berkley

Album art for Berkley II.
Zeke still looks exactly like this.
Zeke Berkley's second full length album, Berkley II, is a challenging, multi-influenced jaunt around what it means to create a pop album these days. Clearly the word "pop" has lots of meanings; I use it here to refer to a particular structure of songwriting, recognizable arrangement of verses and choruses, a bridge and instrumental, familiar harmonies and chord progressions that even the most outlandish of bands find themselves returning to time and again. This sort of pop rarely hits the top of the charts these days, but the structure, with a lineage tracing back to the humble balladeer singing heartfelt songs about unrequited love, transitioned into mainstream through big band crooners, set in concrete by four part harmonies and given rock and roll credentials by the Beatles, has spawned endless iterations with each aspiring artist trying their hand at writing a pop song in the same way aspiring poets write sonnets.
The driving beats, synth sounds and quick changes in tempo, style, and feel set my expectations for an electronica album. I kept waiting for the ambient mood setter or an extended beat mix, but those never came. It took me about three or four listens before it dawned on me what Zeke had written was a pop album. These days I am used to hearing pop tunes with a mostly rock and roll instrumentation, big choruses divided by softer versus, a smartly placed minor chord progression to thin out the major chords, a catchy hook bookending wistful lyrics. Zeke works from a much subtler tool box of electronica, R&B, New Wave, progressive and world music to paint over the solid bones of his pop songwriting.
For years, Zeke Berkley has been a fixture in the Ventura music scene as a member of great local rock bands like End Transmission and the Grandmas, but most often I have seen him performing solo with the modest accompaniment of an acoustic guitar, sitting in cafes and bars singing pop songs about love lost. This album, also a solo venture, plays like a full band and forays into electro-pop, leaving no genre stone unturned. Zeke wrote, plays and sings every note on the record, with the hand of John Sveiven of Ventura's Arkive Studios engineering the recordings. Zeke is admittedly fond of that lo-fi feel and many parts of the album are recorded on a four track with vintage (which sometimes just means "shitty") mics, and layered under ambient electronica, airy guitars, world beats, and stylistic references to decades of rock, pop, and R&B. For all the far ranging instrumentation, the subject matter is right in Zeke's wheelhouse, love lost, self-doubt, the lamentation of opportunity missed, in other words, pure pop. At his core, Zeke is still that singer songwriter sitting in a spare cafe, singing songs about ex-girlfriends and better days with a guitar; the jungle beats, the explosive crescendos, the arty transitions, the abrupt timing changes, the shoegazing aesthetic amount to Zeke's playing with the boundaries of his music. When it clicked into to place that this is still a singer songwriter album by a guy who obviously knows and loves the craft of making music, I listened to the album anew and got it in a way which had eluded me before.
The Rough
Zeke's grasp of the building blocks of songwriting are clearly sophisticated. The tracks are dense, every detail is spot on, even moments where Zeke's voice begins to falter don't' feel like mistakes, but rather contribute to the personal and unguarded feel of the album. I couldn't shake the feeling at times that the constant reference to other sounds, other genres, the inclusion of riffs, of guitar tones, and musical phrases plays like a checklist of musical tropes and less like the earnest output of a writer who has a hundred influences brewing in his subconscious. Each composition moves fast through a databank of keyboard sounds, baroque guitar flourishes, and vaguely familiar moments. The album never doubles back on itself or revisits a theme, which can be a positive if it's always innovating, however the same characteristic, arrived at carelessly, untethers the listener in a way that makes the album feel like every song is disjointed from the one before and after it. It can be distracting at times and certainly the pitfall of writing an album all by yourself without the checks and balances of other collaborators to temper every artistic impulse.
The Diamond
The track "Sink" is a suite of two distinct arrangements, presented together as a single piece. Part One is a stylized Tin Pan Alley throwback about losing items down a kitchen sink. A requisite old-timey piano riff (Before the advent of electronic amplifiers, brass tacks were pushed into the felt of the hammer on each key of a piano to increase the volume as the hammer struck the piano wire, for playing in loud bars, inadvertently creating the distinctive "pling" associated with Rag piano playing. I'm gonna assume Zeke used a setting on his keyboard) combined with the muffled and warbly feel of an old silver recording starts out the catchy track and halfway through, the toe-tapping prologue abruptly transitions into a head nodding guitar-rock chorus complete with Rhodes organ. As Part One resolves, an acoustic guitar picks out the first notes of Part Two, a more muted melody, wrapped in layers of reverb, giving it a distant feel. The "lost" mentioned in the lyrics of this part are of a much more personal nature than the trinkets lost down the sink of the first part and it occurred to me the verses in this part are the closest representation of Zeke's stripped down live performance style on the record, coffee house acoustics and all. The tune grows into a huge finale, using that oh-so-satisfying grungy loud/quiet structure, layered over with some of the best use of synths and classic pop harmonies on the record. It's certainly the hardest rocking moment on the album. At some point I realized I crossed some invisible mental barrier of listening to the song with a critical ear into listening on repeat for pure enjoyment.
Berkley II is solid second album for the prolific songwriter and performer, Zeke Berkley, who obviously has a wide ranging appreciation for music and a solid sense of composition which is at times engaging and other times random. His capable pop tunes deliver catchy riffs and personal lyrics in an album that is never boring. There are gems that I found myself returning to over and over and it's definitely worth a listen.
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Tags: record review