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by George Graham
(independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 6/13/2012)
Despite the enduring popularity of the jam band scene, there seems to come a time in many jam bands' recording careers that they want to do more succinct and structured songs, even pop tunes. This happened with the band Phish a number of years ago, and the String Cheese Incident, Moe and Umphrey's McGee, all very popular on the jam band scene, have at various points, make recordings of shorter tunes. Some have done it perhaps as a challenge for a group used to improvisation, or maybe a desire to widen the group's potential audience. In any case the results of such un-jamming have been mixed at best. A jam band is essentially the musical opposite of a pop group, and when a group tries to change direction so much, the results are not always the most artistically successful.
This week we have a new CD from a veteran jam band from Seattle who were sufficiently intent on seeking a new direction that they even changed their name. And they succeed brilliantly in their new approach. The band and the new CD are both called the True Spokes.
For a dozen years, the group was known as Flowmotion, and as such they released several CDs, and put together an annual music festival called Summer Meltdown, with the emphasis on jam bands. The festival has been going since 2000, and has developed a considerable following in the Pacific Northwest.
Like many of the better jams bands, Flowmotion featured strong musicianship, which has stood the band well in their transition to more structured music as The True Spokes. Their debut album under that name has a fair number of retro elements to the style -- or perhaps we should say that it draws on the better influences from decades ago, including the Beatles, Steely Dan, and the Police along with the lyrical approach of singer-songwriters of the period. They emphasize three-part vocal harmonies and their original material shows a lot of musical sophistication in their combination of distinctive touches like interesting rhythms and almost jazzy harmonic sophistication, while remaining quite appealing. Their compositions are uniformly high in quality. The band's bio says that this is the first time that the writing is more evenly distributed within the group. Previously lead vocalist and guitarist Josh Clausen was the principal composer. It's also the first time they brought in an outside producer, that being Tim Bluhm of the Mother Hips band, who played at Flowmotion's Summer Meltdown festival in 2010. The rest of the True Spokes consists of RL Heyer on guitar and occasionally lead vocals, Scott Goodwin on drums and backing vocals, Eric Bryson on bass and Bob Rees on keyboards and percussion.
Together they come up with music that strikes a nice balance between being musically and lyrically creative and yet likely to have wide appeal. There are touches of retro sounds, but originality dominates. The group often shows some cleverness, and yet it's fairly subtle and unpretentious.
The CD opens with a piece showing a little of the True Spokes' Beatles influence, Back Porch. It's an appealing pop song that shows the how the quintet has made the transition from being a jam band to this kind of tightly structured, sophisticated pop. <<>>
The following track is one of best pieces of writing on this album. The song called Too Wrong draws a bit on the band's Steely Dan influence in the composition's harmonic complexity. <<>>
Another example of the True Spokes' first-rate composing comes on a piece called One Way, which has a touch of world music influence with the African-pop style 6/8 rhythm. <<>>
A further facet of the band comes out on Saving Face, a ballad that hints at country influence. <<>>
RL Heyer does the lead vocals on Old at Heart a piece with interesting lyrical metaphors, and an eclectic mix of rock ingredients. <<>>
One of the most appealing songs on the CD is American Heartache, a great piece of subtle pop songwriting, with lots of twists and turns to keep it interesting. <<>>
The True Spokes' jazziness is on display on a piece called One More Line <<>> which then turns toward the art rock at times. <<>>
The CD ends with the closest thing this reformed jam band does to a jam. Unravel starts out deceptively folky. <<>> Before the band gets into a kind of extended big progressive-rock finish. <<>>
The True Spokes the new album by the band of that name, formerly known as Flowmotion, marks a big transition for the 12-year-old popular jam band from Seattle. They not only altered their musical direction, but changed their name, which is rather a risk for losing fans who might not be aware of the "re-branding." But they have made the transition to sophisticated, structured creative rock very successfully, with outstanding original material, and first-rate musicianship and vocals. The group draws on influences from great music from the past from the Beatles to Steely Dan to some of the progressive rockers. And they have largely suppressed their jam-band tendencies on this album. That may disappoint some, but what they are doing now is outstanding and not very common at this kind of level these days.
Our grade for audio quality is close to an "A." The recording has decent clarity and there is a freedom from annoying trendy studio effects. The dynamic range is not great, but it is rock after all.
The first sentence of the True Spokes publicity biography on their website says: "Ladies and gentlemen, we're living in a post-jam world." I'm not sure how true that is for the musical world at large, where there are some great jam bands making music these days, but it is apparently the case for The True Spokes, and while we may have lost a jam band, we gained an excellent, sophisticated rock group.
(c) Copyright 2012 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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