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The String Cheese Incident: Believe
by George Graham
(SCI Fidelity Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/12/2016)
In any list of the best jam bands in the past decade or more, the String Cheese Incident would have to be near the top. The Colorado group, who formed around the ski resorts in 1993, has been known for their great live performances and has developed a significant following by being a pioneer in using the Internet for spreading the word about the band as well as their music. They also developed a way of working very independently, forming their own record label and even travel agency for fans to follow the band around.
One of the problems with jam bands is how to capture their music. String Cheese has been putting out a series of first-rate live albums, and were making almost every one of their performances available. But when the band goes into the studio to record, their output has been less consistent. This has been a characteristic of several jam bands, whose musical magic seems to depend on interaction with the audience, and providing time to develop their improvisation.
For the last String Cheese studio album, Song in My Head, released in 2014, Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads was brought in as producer, and it turned out to be their best studio record. Now, String Cheese and Harrison have collaborated again on a new studio album, recorded in the band’s new studio. The record is called Believe and unfortunately, it’s probably the band’s most disappointing release. That is not to say that it’s a bad record. In fact compared to most of the music on the pop scene, it’s far better, but by String Cheese standards, the band seems to have lost some of their musical mojo, with mostly tightly structured music that doesn’t show their usual amounts of originality. In fact it’s rife with cliches here and there, and little time for the band to stretch out musically. There are even some love-song lyrics, and some outside players, including female singers, are brought in to give it the structure and strictures of a conventional rock band album.
Otherwise, the personnel remains the same with Kyle Hollingsworth on keyboards, Michael Chang on guitar and mandolin, Billy Nershi on vocals, Keith Moseley on bass, Michael Travis on drums, and percussionist Jason Hann. The band does try a number of styles on the album, from straight rock to 1970s style funk to some country.
Leading off is the title track Believe, which is a kind of straight out classic-rock style piece. It’s well done, but it has none of the band’s trademark improvisation. <<>>
One of the better tracks, a bit more reminiscent of the band’s sound of past recordings is Sweet Spot, whose lyrics are a straight out love song done in a kind of funky rock setting. <<>>
String Cheese gets into another full-out love song on My One and Only, which is done in a mostly acoustic setting with guest vocalist Sheryl Renee sharing the spotlight with the band. <<>> The track does break into a kind of uptempo world-beat influenced sound that String Cheese is so well-known for. <<>>
The group gets uncomfortably close to Nashville country on the song Down a River, complete with some fiddle. This is not exactly the sort of thing that String Cheese’s fans would expect. <<>>
Although the String Cheese Incident has been known to show some funk influence, the band goes all-out for retro disco cliches on the track Stop Drop Roll, which ends up being possibly the worst thing the band has done, complete with fake hand-claps. <<>>
The band shows a little Beatles influence on a song called Flying which evokes music from the Fab Four’s White Album period. It’s an interesting departure. We’ll the band an A for effort on that one. <<>>
The album ends with a track that is more reminiscent of a jam-band. It’s a love song but rather eclectic and does give the String Cheese members an opportunity to stretch out, and thus is a highlight. <<>>
Once again the dilemma of how to get a good studio recording from an all-out jam band has become apparent on the new album by the String Cheese Incident, called Believe. Their last studio album, three years ago, with the same producer, turned out to be the band’s best studio release. This time, the result is disappointing, with the band’s improvisational spirit pretty much suppressed throughout the album, and the group adopting more conventional pop ingredients. In fact perhaps as an acknowledgment of that, the album’s artwork says “SCI” instead of String Cheese Incident. But to be clear, the String Cheese Incident on a bad day is still a lot better than most indie rock bands on their best days. The String Cheese is tight, the arrangements work well for what they are, and there is some of originality.
Our grade for sound quality is also not wildly enthusiastic. The mix is competent, but in the race to make the album needlessly louder, the sound was compressed to have very little dynamic range so everything is at about the same high volume. And sonic quality of the physical CD sounds like a bit-compressed mp3 with smeared out high-frequencies.
The String Cheese Incident remains one of the best jam bands around. But capturing them in a studio session has been problematic. Last time they tried, three years ago, the result was quite good. This time, not so much so. The band’s ardent fans will no doubt want this recording to fill out their collection, and the rest, less familiar with the group will find it a competent and stylistically varied rock band. Fortunately, there are several live albums that capture the band in all its jamming glory, including one released in 2015, called Rhythm of the Road Vol 2 that shows the band at its best.
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