I. Béla Fleck & the Flecktones: The Hidden Land
So to start, this is the one album that isn’t much marked by the times. These guys have been doing their thing for so long that it’s almost unnecessary to talk about; either you’ve heard of them and like them, or you haven’t and don’t. So I have no idea what induced them to entitle their album so, although it does a fair job of capturing the ethereal character of much of their music
The Flecktones are a quartet of phenomenal musicians: banjo virtuoso & band leader Béla Fleck, bassist Victor Wooten, drummer-of-sorts Future-Man, and Jeff Conklin on reeds & flute, whose music is an inimitable melange of bluegrass, jazz, fusion, and classical music. It’s music that’s hard to explain, harder to justify, and either really cool or mindless noodling.
Béla’s side-project of the past few years – recordings of classical music (the highly recommend Perpetual Motion and his Edgar Meyer duet Music for Two) – is featured on the opener, a rendering of a Bach fugue which is exemplary Flecktones. Opening with Future-Man’s Synth-Axe Drumitar, the recording is a perfectly serious take that’s as germane an album opener as could be imagined for something that spans the gamut from the Middle East-infused “Chennai” to the laid-back honky-tonk “Couch Potato.”
The album is uniformly well-produced, dynamic, and listenable, which is much more than could be said for much of the Flecktones’ last album. However, it’s not really until “Weed Whacker,” lying at the very middle of the album, that the band really hits its stride. Moving from extended solos that give each member time to stretch out and explore the song’s chord to intense, densely-layered ensemble playing, driven especially by Béla’s furious finger-picking, the band effectively moves from a blistering up-tempo opening, to a moody interlude with a spectacular soprano sax solo by Conklin, to a funky, phasered recapitulation of the opening half. The Flecktones are at their best in the fluidity of the segues from straight-ahead jazz to bluegrass to Hendrix, but without the blending that can occasionally neuter the excitement.
II. Umphrey’s McGee: Safety in Numbers
Umphrey’s McGee is the best jam band around. Based out of Chicago for the past few years, they’ve been circulating the festival scene and touring for almost a decade, with their present line-up in place since Kris Myers replaced Mike Mirro on drums in 2003. They’re obsessive over their live shows, studying each one extensively and relying upon a complicated set of hand motions by which to improvise songs on the fly.
And yet for all that, their third album, Safety in Numbers, is remarkably detached from their exuberant live act. Only one cut breaks the 7-minute mark, and just barely, only one of the songs is an instrumental, and most of the guitar/keyboard pyrotechnics that blow you away live are generally subsumed into the songs. The songs themselves are fantastic – if unlikely to become concert staples – strangely straddling a line between menace, moodiness, and fist-pumping rock.
They open with “Believe the Lie,” a straight-ahead rocker with some throwaway lyrics that I suppose are about a break-up. Or maybe just a fight. Either way, the propulsive rhythm and percolating guitars give the song an edgy nervousness that would overshadow whatever the point of the lyrics was, anyways.
The third track, “Liquid,” is a short and wonderfully evocative song which effectively uses echo filters, muddy guitars, and rolling percussion, and a wistful accordion to live up to its name. Equally impressive is the song’s ending, a cacophonous freak-out with foreboding, incoherent rambling – the accordion swirling in and out of tune, until the next song, “Words,” launches out of the mess. The only track on the album that overstays it’s welcome, with a long, meditative interlude starting after five minutes that ends with a recap of the original melody that could have been excised without loss.
Following the melodic “Nemo,” which is marked by Joel Cummins’ excellent keyboard work, is the standout track of the album “Women Wine and Song.” A bluesy romp with harp and vocals courtesy of Huey Lewis, it’s the only track to escape the general sense of foreboding which colors the rest of the album in favor a great hooray-for-the-good-life sing-a-long chorus that’s ready-made for live performance – although Lewis’ blowing makes the studio track an interesting variation from live versions.
This segues into the light acoustic number “End of the Road,” which almost feels like it ought to be the end of the album, both for the title and for its light touch. They don’t disappoint with the final three songs. Starting with “Passing,” which reins in the morose and instead, in what my brother calls their 90s alt-metal song – features soaring vocals, screaming guitars, and a feeling that even if, as the band says “there’s safety in numbers/ but I’m not impressed,” it’s hard to be not impressed by the sheer amount of talent they possess.
The penultimate cut, “Ocean Billy,” in its run-of-the-mill rambling, takes a swipe at their own success, “Would it matter if no one looked/ Half of the time on a stage/ Where most of its not even real,” and slowly builds momentum until the pounding coda, which catches Umphrey’s in a rare moment of harmonic monotony, sticking to one chord for over a minute while the rest of the band cuts loose, crashing into the finale, “The Weight Around,” with pun intended. It’s a nice conclusion to the album, resolving the more neurotic parts with a reserved lament, “I hope you’re worth the wait around/ If I’m not I understand.”
What makes the album work so well, particularly for fans of the band, is that it consciously plays with the band’s successful live act, using concise songwriting and studio production to give the album an emotional arc which undercuts the tracks on which they stretch out, adding a logic to the growth of the songs that otherwise becomes monotonous on record. It’s not really a good way to be introduced to the band- you have to see them live- but the album works on its own terms brilliantly.
III. The Flaming Lips: At War with the Mystics
There’s nothing here to live up to the beauty of “Do You Realize??” or the songcraft of The Soft Bulletin, instead, the Flaming Lips are dancing – and the tracks are as compulsively danceable as ever – yet in more openly dark territory. From the provocative opener’s “If you could make everybody poor just so you could be rich/ Would you do it?” to the anger of “Haven’t Got a Clue,” “Every time you state your case/ The more I want to punch your face,” there’s nothing like the optimistic reservation expressed earlier, it’s been supplanted by the gloomy question, “How do we keep going on?”
But for all that, it’s the Flaming Lips – it’s fun. “The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song” features, of course, background vocals singing “Yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah,” and if you don’t pay any attention to the verses, sounds like an uplifting bit of power pop, with the driving chorus “With all your power/ What would you do?” And the music video, which is on their website, is either hilarious or totally deranged- I suppose it depends on how offended you are by exploiting obesity or the obvious implications about American society.
Then there’s “Free Radicals,” or “A Hallucination of the Christmas Skeleton Pleading with a Suicide Bomber.” The subtitles on this album are as sweet as ever. “You think you’re so radical/ But you’re not so radical/ In fact you’re just Fanatical!!” I guess it’s a political statement. I think it’s just a pretty sweet rhyme. And the guitar lick at the end of each verse is a funky, crunchy riff that makes the whole thing impossible to take too seriously. And a damn cool song.
The next few tracks start to meander more, slowing the tempo down. But the songwriting is quite strong enough to carry it off. There are brilliant moments, when in “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion” the lines “They see the sun go down but they don’t see it rise,” are followed by a caesura marked by descending guitar chords and strings, only to launch back into the triumphant last verse – “Yes it’s true someday everything dies/ We won’t let that defeat us.”
The instrumental “The Wizard Turns On…” marks the midpoint of the album, nicely breaking up the languor of the previous tracks with it’s funky, fuzz-boxed guitar, hesitant flute, and screeching keyboards descending into a low drone, which breaks with the infectious romp “It Overtakes Me.” This cut spends too much time moving through a quiet, atmospheric bridge, before breaking into a serene finger-picked guitar finale that would have served well enough on its own to defuse the jumpiness of the first half of the song.
“Mr. Ambulance Driver,” with it’s eerie usage of a siren, relatively sparse production, and clear lyrics, perfectly augments the doleful lyrics – “Mr. Ambulance Driver I’m not a real survivor/ ‘Cause I’m wishing that I wasn’t the one that/ Wasn’t gonna be here any more.” “Haven’t Got A Clue,” fills up more sonic space with drones and bleeps, building up the sound as the lyrics become more aggressive, from “You used your money and your friends/ To try and trick me… But you won’t trick me,” to “Every time you state your case/ The more I want to punch your face.” The close interplay of lyrics and music, and the fact that the chorus is unbelievably infectious in spite of it’s anger, makes this my favorite track.
The next track is “Pompeii am Götterdämmerung,” and with it’s Pink Floyd-esque bass-line it is naturally apocalyptic, if happily so – “Now we’ll be forever holding hands/ Lava and tephra will for our bed/ Now the royal flames of Pompeii bless/ All our senses…” But then, the finale, “Goin’ on,” says “We hold our breath ’til the morning comes/ And at last the sun shines through,” so who knows. What’s nice about the best parts of this album is the tight interconnection of lyric and music, and – even when it gets droll – the melodicism of the Flaming Lips. It doesn’t quite do justice to its potential, but it’s got enough to justify itself.