George Graham reviews Pigeons Playing Ping Pong's "Presto"
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Pigeons Playing Ping Pong: Presto
by George Graham

(Independent release as broadcast on WVIA-FM 2/19/2020)

Jam bands tend to face a dilemma when they go into the studio to make an album. Should they record long improvisations as they do live, or should they record more tightly structured songs more suitable for the recorded format, which may not be very reflective of how the band plays live. Different bands have taken different approaches on different albums, with for example the String Cheese Incident releasing live recordings that capture the band at their improvisational heights, and they have released tightly structured studio albums that border on pop.

This week, we have a regional jam band who addresses the issue on a new studio album. The group is Pigeons Playing Ping Pong, and their new release, with a sort of hybrid approach, is called Presto.

Pigeons Playing Ping Pong are from Baltimore and were formed by guitarists Greg Ormont and Jeremy Schon more than a decade ago at the University of Maryland. They said that the band’s name arose out of a psychology class. They set out to be a kind of good-time party jam band, and known for their energetic live shows. They typically play about 130 dates a year, and have released four previous albums, including a double live album. The band also makes recordings of their performances available for free on the website. Like some other jam bands, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong also have have organized their own annual multi-artist festival, in this case, in West Virginia, called Domefest, with the tenth edition of the festival held in 2019.

As mentioned, the new album Presto represents a compromise between the band’s live jamming and the more succinct approach of a typical studio album. Greg Ormont said that they and had been working on new material and been performing it live quite a bit before going into the studio, which is the opposite of the usual order for a rock band. But it’s a good plan for a group like this, with the members set up essentially live in the studio. So while the longest track on the album is six-and-a-half minutes, there is a definite live feel to the music, with the band playing tightly and obviously interacting in a live performance situation.

In addition to guitarists Greg Ormont and Jeremy Schon, with the former being the lead vocalist, the band includes bassist Ben Carrey and drummer Alex Petropulos. The new album is mostly self-contained within the band, but there are some horns on a couple of tracks.

Pigeon Playing Ping Pong take in styles that have been the meat and potatoes of other jam bands such as funk, with an almost disco beat reminiscent of the band ALO, and some Latin and rumba influence á la String Cheese Incident. PPPP’s music tends to be upbeat, with a good-time aura present, and frequently a danceable beat. There are a couple of instrumental tracks on the album but it’s primarily vocal, with lyrics that at times can be intriguing, but sometimes seem like place-holders, providing a kind of focus while the action is clearly on the instrumental arrangements and the rhythmic groove.

Opening is a track called King Kong, which shows the band’s funk side, being quite suitable for the dance floor. The horn section makes an appearance. <<>>

Dawn a New Day takes a kind of upbeat retro pop direction. And like the pop songs of yore, it’s pretty brief, under four minutes. The piece seems like something that the band could jam on. <<>>

A track called High as Five combines the band’s upbeat good-time sound with a jam section, and lyrics that probably have a story behind them. <<>>

One of the instrumentals is called Avalanche. It’s the album’s longest track and gives the band a chance to jam out some. Its disco-influenced beat can be reminiscent of the band ALO. <<>>

For me, the album’s best track is Fortress, with its sort-of-African rumba beat. It’s another chance for the band to little jamming on this studio record. <<>>

Another strong track is an instrumental called Havana with both good tight ensemble playing a nice jam section. <<>>

About the closest thing this album has to a sad song, lyrically, is Snake Eyes. Still, the band imbues it with a good groove. <<>>

The album ends with another instrumental Skipjack to which the group gives a strong rock-oriented energy level. <<>>

Presto, the new fifth release by the Baltimore area jam band Pigeons Playing Ping Pong successfully threads the needle of a band who obviously jams out with the more concise requirements of a studio album. Among jam bands, Pigeons Playing Ping Pong’s emphasis is not so much on impressive musicianship in the solo department, but on keeping an upbeat, party groove happening. The result is an entertaining album that is danceable and positive in sound. The band’s constant touring has made the quartet a tight musical unit, and that shows on the new album, with material having been road-tested before they set foot in the studio.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B. The clarity is not that great, and the dynamic range, how the recording captures the ebb and flow from soft to loud, is pretty undewhelming, with everything seemingly more or less at the same loudness. But unfortunately, that is all too typical of recordings these days.

Jam bands come in various musical flavors, emphasizing different facets. On their new album, Pigeons Playing Pong Pong shows that they are a jam band you can party to.

(c) Copyright 2020 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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