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(Brushfire Records 6197-02 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/3/2006)
With the popularity of jam bands undiminished, naturally the number of band making music in that broad category is growing. The idea of groups that play on long instrumental improvisations had a resurgence in the 1990s with the popularity of then-emerging groups Fish, Moe, and even the Dave Matthews Band. Since then, more and more groups are entering the fray, with them comes a wider variety of influences. There are jazzy jam bands like the String Cheese Incident, bluegrass influenced jam bands, such a Railroad Earth and Leftover Salmon, and art-rock influenced jam bands like Umphrey's McGee and Raq. This week we have a group which I suppose could be described as a kind of singer-songwriter-influenced jam band. They call themselves the Animal Liberation Orchestra, and their new CD bears the title Fly Between Falls. They combine interesting lyrics, sometimes held-together by a narrative, with groove-based tunes that allow a chance for the band to improvise. And the result is satisfying recording that you can listen to either for the music or the lyrics.
The group had its start several years ago when three of the four current members, keyboard man Zach Gill, bassist Steve Adams and guitarist Dan Lebowitz began making music together when all were students at the University of California at Santa Barbara. With their college band director on drums, they formed a nine-piece ensemble called the Animal Liberation Orchestra and the Free Range Horns. They attracted a fair amount of attention in the Santa Barbara area before the three original members returned to their mutual home town of San Francisco, and enlisted another UC Santa Barbara alumnus David Brogan, who had also played drums with Gill, Adams and Lebowitz in college. They began performing as a quartet in the city which gave us that prototype the jam band, the Grateful Dead. All four brought a wide-ranging musical background and education to make this a more musically literate band than many in the field, and they also strive to make their music especially appealing and free wheeling in concert. Lyrically, the ALO, as they call themselves, can borrow from the singer-songwriter school with literate, often introspective or philosophical words. One piece tells the story of the birth of Gill's daughter. And there are a few song with lyrics more in the party mode. But this is a group that has something to say, as well as to jam on.
Stylistically, they have a kind of soul-influenced undercurrent, and the mood of their music does tend toward the positive and melodic. On their CD, the band is mostly self-contained, though they did have help from a kind of musical benefactor, popular singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, who sat in doing backing vocals on one track, and has invited ALO to perform on his tours. Johnson also released ALO's previously independent 2005 CD on his nationally distributed Brushfire Records label.
By the way, after Johnson signed the band to his label, they revised the previous version of the album, added a new track, resequenced and remixed Fly Between Falls.
Leading off is a piece called Spectrum, which has a vaguely African beat. The tune was written and sung by Gill, the keyboard player. The song combines an attractive sound with introspective words. <<>>
Wasting Time (Isla Vista Song) is the first of the real jams on the CD. It's a tribute to their college days in Santa Barbara. <<>>
The group's bent for philosophical lyrics is highlighted on the song called Barbeque. Within its relatively short four-minute length, it covers a lot of ground from folky to almost world music influenced. <<>>
The song with Jack Johnson is Girl, I Wanna Lay You Down, which doesn't much beat around the bush with its words. The piece highlights the kind of soul influence the pervades a fair portion of the ALO's music. <<>>
For me one of the most interesting pieces is Shapeshifter, which describes the track's musical complexion. At six and a half minutes, it's relatively short by jam band standards, but it spans a lot of territory, with a sound that can run from a quiet piano accompaniment to close to art rock. <<>>
Zach Gill tends to write the more introspective lyrics. Drummer Dave Brogan's contributions are more in the party mode. Walls of Jericho, with its great rhythmic groove, epitomizes that the lyrical approach of having a good time, and the consequences will come later. <<>>
Yet another side of the band is highlighted on Pobrecito, with sone Spanglish lyrics, and a funky beat. <<>>
Waiting for Jaden tells the story of the overdue birth of Gill's daughter. Stylistically it sounds more like a conventional jam band, though ALO pulls it off very well. The band's biography says that this song in particularly popular in the band's live shows. <<>> It turns atmospheric, or perhaps psychedelic toward its end. <<>>
Jam bands are not usually known for their lyrics. In some cases, the group may be instrumental to begin with, or sometimes the group will come up with whimsical lyrics that don't make a lot of sense. The San-Francisco-based Animal Liberation Orchestra is one of the few groups on the jam band scene that brings a more literate, singer-songwriter approach to their music, while still having a chance to stretch out instrumentally. On this studio CD, they don't jam for too long -- the longest track is under seven minutes -- but the ALO does show its abilities in that regard in some compact but interesting jams. No doubt the band can improvise at length in their live shows, and their tight musicianship is evident on this revised version of their previously independent release.
For a grade in sound quality, we'll give the CD close to an "A." There's good clarity, immediacy and warmth, and studio effects are sparingly used. The recording's dynamic range is OK for this kind of music.
The group says that they are very much close friends as well as musical colleagues. Dan Lebowitz is quoted in the band's bio as saying that "if we were't making music together I'm sure we'd be doing something else together." That kind of camaraderie may help to explain why the band's rather diverse interests come togther so well.
I suppose almost any rock band could become a jam band if they wanted to -- just throw in some extended instrumental breaks. But Animal Liberation Orchestra on their new CD Fly Between Falls combines the kind of literate lyrical approach with the jam-band spirit is a mix that is both distinctive and very appealing.
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