An album that recently caught my eye has been Chris Berkner‘s debut, Breathe Underwater. Not much is known about this multi-instrumentalist from Santa Cruz, California, though it appears that he prefers to let his music do the talking. Either way, Berkner has built up a very impressive local following around Santa Cruz, providing for an explanation of the plentiful array of musical collaborators on Breathe Underwater. The helpful hands include acclaimed bassist Jon Evans, most notorious for his work with Tori Amos. Evans supplies his electric bass on six of the thirteen tracks on the album, one being the upbeat “Springtime”. Considering that a few days ago marked the beginning of spring, I consider this quite an appropriate time to enjoy this fluid introduction to Berkner. Of course, Berkner is not referencing the season specifically. Like most artists, he serves it up as a metaphor for love, human emotions, and rebirth. “It’s springtime, the sun is shining, it’s springtime, time to unwind,” Berkner states simply over a series of gentle acoustic strums behind the lively piano of Bodhi K. Setchko. “The flowers blooming in your eyes, the flowers blooming in your soul,” provides for an effective turn of repetition, stating the case for a predictable yet enjoyable chorus. Minor touches such as a vibrant saxophone riff lifts the song out of the “typical acoustic alternative” category and into a state of enjoyable originality. Despite the light “Springtime”, much of the lyrical content in Breathe Underwater is focused on loss, regret, worry, and various other regrettable human dignities, stated rather profusely in the bluntly titled “Every Emotion”. “Every emotion is fuel for the fire of being alive,” Berkner begins, displaying his comprehensible piano skills with a charming melody. “I pray for the sun to come and ease the pain, but maybe I ought to pray for rain,” signals an interesting contrast for melancholy, exposing Berkner’s lyrical variety as his vocal range increases with intensified emotion. The moment when the violin work of Dina Maccabee collides with Ron Kutulas’ steady drums, one can easily recognize Berkner’s precise craftsmanship in the field of songwriting, even if the collaborators provide a graceful lift that often appears disregarded.
Writing all the songs on his own, tracks such as “Every Emotion” are a capable demonstration of hard work and natural skill. In addition, Berkner showcases his love for world music in tracks like the introductory Middle-Eastern themed “Breathe Underwater” and the interesting percussion in “I Must Travel”, provided by the enigmatic Michael Chiaravelloti. “Breathe Underwater” sounds like it could have been placed on the soundtrack for the movie “Babel” with ease, even due to the exotic vocal delivery alone. Berkner’s musical style is certainly varied, even if many of the songs can easily fit in the straightforward realm of contemporary alternative. Even with this in mind, his poetic lyrical touch on songs like the beautiful “Smiling On Me” are fascinating perspectives in addition to his respectful take on foreign ideals, demonstrated in the half-French closer “If I’m Dreaming” and the aforementioned “Breathe Underwater” and “I Must Travel”. Even while acoustic ballads in the mold of “One Little Flower” can get too familiar after repeated listens, instrumental additions such as the beautiful cello on “Tapestry” cause an enriching listening experience that proves for memorable melody and style reconstruction. Assertive electric pop songs like “I’ve Been Trying” and “Jealousy” are also enjoyable, even in contrast to the crawling ballads surrounding them. “The Listening” reminds me of Michael Stipe and latter R.E.M. material, right down to Berkner’s vocals, an aspect that are somehow reminiscent of Stipe’s in “The Listening” exclusively. Mainly led by the keys of Berkner and Jordan Feinstein, the song is a relaxing pop ballad that lyrically recollects the state of reactionary human awareness that many of us take for granted. Though Breathe Underwater was released last August, I recently discovered the delightful release. With over ten proficient musical collaborators at Berkner’s side, the debut from this talented Californian is an enjoyable affair that is much like taking a walk along the beach setting of his press photographs: a relaxing journey with only a few rough pebbles in the smooth sand, with a memory of footsteps that are both easily forged and forgotten.