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(SCI Fidelity Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/30/2014)
Back in the early days of rock and roll, bands used to play on the road all the time, and then go into the studio to try to capture their live performances, with varying degrees of success. Then came the practice of using the studio as part of the creative process, which led to the kind of sonic approach pioneered by the Beatles. The 1970s and Eighties brought a kind of studio excess where bands would spent months in the studio creating their music. Then the late 1990s brought the emergence and popularity of jam bands, whose music was spontaneous and live by definition. So now, there never has there been such a dichotomy between the studio bands, some of whom rely almost entirely on digital effects for their sound, and the jam bands whose main outlet is live performance, with quite a few going toward acoustic instruments for part of their sound.
Some of us may take a kind of perverse pleasure in seeing the purveyors of technological artifice music fall on their faces when the devices they depend on malfunction. But sometimes very good jam bands are not captured well on studio albums. This has happened with at least two of the best on the jam band scene, Moe. and the String Cheese Incident, both of whom have released sub-par studio albums that try to make the band into something they might not be.
Now the String Cheese Incident are out with their first new studio album in nine years, and it turns out to be the their best studio recording.
The Colorado-based String Cheese Incident, named it is said, from a food fight involving a cheese dish that the members got into, formed in 1993 and played around ski resorts, before putting out their first album in 1997. They followed that with a live recording, called A String Cheese Incident -- they and their fans have taken to calling their performances "incidents." That 1998 recording still stands as one of the group's best.
While String Cheese has been putting out live recordings prolifically, often as downloads, and were releasing every concert they played for a while, their studio recordings have been spotty. They have brought in outside producers, sometimes with the intent by the band to make something completely different from their live performances. But the band's strength is in their improvisations, and often danceable eclecticism, from hoedown to salsa.
In 2007 the String Cheese announced that they would be doing a bunch of farewell performances, but they continued to get together for specific shows periodically. In the meantime, the individual members took up side projects and/or released solo albums.
Now mandolin and guitar player Michael Kang, guitarist Billy Nershi, keyboard player Kyle Hollingsorth, bassist Michael Travis, drummer Keith Moseley and percussionist Jason Hann have reunited in the studio for a new release called Song in My Head. Once again, they enlisted an outside producer, but this time it was not someone from the alternative rock or techno worlds as they have done in the past, but got Jerry Harrison, ex- of Talking Heads and in recent years a prolific producer of a wide array of other artists. And the result is a very satisfying album. The band came up with a nice collection of original material, with each of the members reflecting the stylistic elements be brings to the band, from the kind of hillbilly breakdown, to reggae to Latin influenced beats, with the different facets emphasized on different pieces. And though the most of the tracks are not particularly long, most of them provide an opportunity for at least a short jam section which highlights the group's greatest strength.
The CD opens with the kind of track that will be stylistically familiar to fans of String Cheese. Colorado Bluebird Day is in fact a kind of musical resume for the band, both musically and lyrically, with the bluegrass influenced jam and the lyrics about their home state. The lead composer is guitarist Billy Nershi. <<>>
A Michael Kang tune follows and shows a little Latin influence. Betray the Dark, recalls old Santana. <<>> Including the way that the latter section breaks into a double time rhythm. <<>>
A tune by keyboard man Kyle Hollingsworth called Let's Go Outside is more in the straight ahead rock direction, with clever psychedelic-influenced lyrics. <<>>
Another Nershi tune is the title track Song in My Head. It's just an infectious pop influences tune which the provides the band with a good chance to do abbreviated jams. <<>>
Taking a rather different direction is track called Struggling Angel by bassist Keith Moseley. It's a bit of a sad song, which is not the kind of thing that String Cheese does very often. <<>>
One of the qualities that sets the String Cheese Incident apart from others on the jam band scene is their ability to break into world music rhythms. A tune by keyboard man Hollingsworth called Can't Wait Another Day is one of the most appealing tracks on the album. <<>>
One of the more interesting combinations is Stay Through, which was co-written by Michael Kang and Nashville songwriter, and often bluegrass player Jim Lauderdale. But stylistically, it's done as reggae. <<>>
Fortunately, the band does include one fairly lengthy track on which they can stretch out and jam. It's called Colliding, which is a good title for the stylistic pastiche that concludes the album. <<>>
The String Cheese Incident, despite being one of the very best jam bands on the scene, has not been captured very well in studio recordings. Many of their fans, myself included, much prefer their live recordings. While they have in the past set out to break their stylistic mold somewhat through their different studio albums, none of those recordings could be ranked as among their best. Now on Song in My Head, for perhaps the first time, the String Cheese Incident has created an studio album that captures the essence of the band in more succinct form than a live recording. Producer Jerry Harrison deserves credit in that respect. It's also good that the band had gotten around to a new album after their hiatus that ended in 2009. It's got all the ingredients that will make this instantly appealing to the band's many fans.
Our grade for sound quality is about an A-minus. There's rather good clarity, and studio effects are held to a minimum. But like so many recordings these days, it was volume-compressed to within an inch of its life. So there's no ebb and flow of volume, and it ends up sounding flat and lifeless.
The String Cheese Incident's fans are still probably going to pick one of the band's live recordings as their favorites, and for people just becoming familiar with this group that has now been together for 20 years, I also recommend one of their live releases. But Song in My Head is a fine recording that finally harnesses the band's best qualities in a studio situation.
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