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(Brushfire B0013961 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/24/2010)
Singer-songwriters and jam bands are rather like musical opposites. The one concentrates on the words with the music subordinate, while the other stretches out with improvisation, often instrumentally. And most jam bands are not known for their profound lyrics. But this week, we have the latest recording by a group which is a cross between the two. A band that can jam out, but also features songs with lyrics more typical of a folkie. The group is ALO, and their new CD is called Man of the World.
ALO was formed in Southern California when three of its members were students at UC Santa Barbara. They started out in the early 1990s as a 9-piece group with horns, called the Animal Liberation Orchestra and Free Range Horns, where they attracted attention their college town. But after graduation they hooked up with another long-time friend in the San Francisco area, where most were from, and launched ALO in the Bay area. They released a couple of independent CDs before getting together with a long-time friend from college, popular singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, who signed them to his label, and released their CD Fly Between Falls in 2006. They followed that in 2007 with Roses and Clover, which like its predecessor we also featured in this album review series. Both were very appealing recordings that showed the group's penchant for articulate songs and a breezy jam quality to their music.
Their new CD Man of the World represents a change in approach, but the result achieves more or less the same goals. The group is rather more spread out geographically now. Guitarist Dan Lebowitz, bassist Steve Adams and drummer David Brogan are based in the Bay area, while keyboard man and principal songwriter Zach Gill lives in Southern California. So they went someplace far away to record: to Jack Johnson's home studio in Hawaii, where they also functioned more like a jam band, recording the tracks all together mostly live in the studio. Their previous recordings, even though they had a jam band quality, were largely recorded in layers, with the instruments isolated from each other. So the new CD has a somewhat more organic, informal sound. And to underscore that, there are some things like studio chatter, extraneous sounds and even a dog barking at one point at the end of a tune. But the quality of the material is among the band's best. Jack Johnson served as the CD's producer, co-wrote a couple of the songs and is heard on vocals from time to time. His sound is a thoroughly compatible, and he's a nice addition. Otherwise, the band is largely self-contained on the CD. That's usually enough, since the band members play a bunch of varying instruments from steel guitar to upright piano.
Man of the World opens with one of its highlights, a song called Suspended, which illustrates the band's live-in-the-studio approach. The lyrics, pianist Zach Gill explains, are about accepting the natural tensions in life. <<>> The seven minute track gets into a nice easy-going jam. <<>>
States of Friction is a bit of a musical and lyrical contrast to that song, with a rockier groove, and Lebowitz using his steel guitar. <<>>
The title track Man of the World takes aim at some unnamed, possibly political figure, while the band rocks out is a kind of retro, almost Beatles-esque way. <<>>
I Wanna Feel It was written and sung by Dan Lebowitz, and it takes on a more country-oriented sound, with an all-acoustic arrangement, including Adams on upright bass. It's another nice contrast. <<>>
ALO has always counted some old-style soul as one of their influences. That facet of their music comes out on the track Big Appetite. Again the result is an easy-going, appealing track. <<>>
Jack Johnson makes one of his appearances on the track Gardener's Grave. He shares lead vocal duties, and wrote the lyrics on this especially laid-back song. <<>>
A further departure is The Champ with the vocals by drummer Brogan, while the band rocks out. An interesting sidelight is that one of the background vocalists was Zack Gill's young daughter Jaden, whose birth was celebrated on the song Waiting for Jaden on the band's CD Fly Between Falls. <<>>
Perhaps the most intriguing track on the CD is The Country Electro, which combines a kind of spacey jam-band group groove with lyrics that express longing for a pre-wired era. <<>>
Man of the World the new CD by ALO is another worthwhile release from a California-based group that mixes a jam-band approach with lyrics that are often more typical of a singer-songwriter. The production by Jack Johnson, the mostly live-in-the-studio approach, and the Hawaiian setting for the recording give this CD a more informal quality than the band's previous releases, and that helps their jam band side take flight.
Sonically, we'll give the CD about a B-minus. Even though the performances show some more musical camaraderie, with everybody in the room together, the recording lacks warmth and the airy quality that marked their previous releases. And, as is so often the case, the recording was excessively compressed, obliterating much of the dynamics of their performances.
ALO has been together recording for over a decade now. Man of the World is their first CD in close to three years. Though it represents something of a change in technique, the band maintain their basic stylistic direction, and musically, I think it's one of their best yet.
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