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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1685

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ALO: Sounds Like This
by George Graham

(Brushfile Records 16784 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 5/16/2012)

The jam band scene has been maturing and becoming more diverse. The styles can run from elaborate, almost art-rock, along the lines of Umphrey's McGee, to more bluegrass oriented like Railroad Earth, to some more mainstream rock-flavored groups. This week we have the latest by a California-based quartet that in the past I called a kind of singer-songwriter jam band. The band is ALO, and their new CD, their fourth nationally-released, is called Sounds Like This.

ALO originally stood for the Animal Liberation Orchestra, a band which formed on during the 1990s on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where they started as a 11-piece ensemble whose full name was the Animal Liberation Orchestra and Free Range Horns. After graduation, three of the principal members, all of whom were originally from around San Francisco, returned north to the Bay Area and launched the band as a quartet, with another transplanted Bay Area musician who studied at UC Santa Barbara. They released a couple of independent albums before hooking up with popular Hawaiian-based singer-writer Jack Johnson, who signed them to his Brushfire label.

The group has always been most at home on stage, freely improvising, so their CDs have sometimes been a bit of a compromise for them, as they tried to make music more succinct for the recorded format. ALO's last album was produced by Johnson in his studio in Hawaii. But for this record, the band got together with their long-time engineer David Simon-Baker in the San Francisco area and rather blurred the distinction between pre-production -- where the songs are worked out -- and the actual recording of the CD. They were able to develop the material and stretch out, capturing almost all of it, and then whittling it down to what turns out to be probably their best album yet.

ALO, consisting of keyboard man and principle lead vocalist Zach Gill, guitarist Dan "Lebo" Lebowitz, bassist Steve Adams, and drummer Dave Brogan, move a bit more toward a jam band direction on Sounds Like This than their last album, through there are also some pieces that could almost be pop songs. They like to mix styles, throwing in hints of various musical genres especially when they are stretching out on improvisation. They also go in for retro sounds, especially in the keyboard department. One of the distinctive features of ALO's sound this time is a kind of relaxed, laid-back quality, which was occasionally apparent in their earlier recording. Most of the new CD has that easy-going sound, partly thanks to Zach Gill's vocals, but also due to their approach to their instrumentation and material. That might have been attributable in part on their last album to the Hawaiian setting for the recording. But the new album, made in Northern California, further amplifies that direction, on both the more structured songs and on the two or three longer jams that are included. And lyrically, the group often comes out with interesting material, sometimes on the slightly inscrutable side, with occasional subtle love songs.

The hour-long CD gets under way with a piece called Dead Still Dance, which is about what its title suggests. It's one of the strongest tracks on the album, epitomizing ALO's sound: laid-back jam band music. <<>>

One of the more intriguing aspects of this CD is the way ALO incorporates a kind of 1970s disco beat on several of the album's tracks. Blew Out the Walls, about a band discovering the power of making music together, shows some of that disco groove. <<>>

Also with a retro sound is Speed of Dreams which recalls some 1960s pop, to which ALO gives their own sound. <<>>

The band's hanging out with Jack Johnson in Hawaii for their last album, ribbed off a bit on ALO. There's a ukulele providing the undercurrent on the song Storms and Hurricanes another of the band's ventures into more short-form pop-influenced music. <<>>

On the other hand, one of the more eclectic tunes on Sounds Like This is Cowboys and Chorus Girls which has occasional influence from what you might expect from such a title. But the lengthy piece goes through a lot of phases. <<>> Including a bit more of the disco beat. <<>>

A bit more reminiscent of the music of the band's past releases is a track called Combat Zone, which is kind of complicated love song. <<>>

The CD ends with the two longest tracks, both of which give ALO a chance to jam out. Room for Bloomin' again throws in a bit more of the 1970s disco beat, while keeping it light and airy, and lyrically literate. <<>>

The longest track is the finale. Reviews (From Here to Zed), is a song whose lyrics are about an artist getting mixed reviews after a change of creative direction. It's not clear whether it's meant to be autobiographical. Although the piece clocks in at eight and a half minutes, there is not that much time spent on instrumental jamming. There are a lot of lyrics running through most of it. <<>> But the band does get a chance to jam out here are there. <<>>

Sounds Like This the new fourth nationally-distributed recording by the California jam band ALO is probably their best yet. The band has perfected a distinctive laid-back jam-band sound that combines high quality songwriting with an eclectic approach to instrumental improvisation. They throw in a lot of stylistic influences, including a surprising amount of retro, with synthesizer sounds that evoke the analog days, and on more than one occasion, a nod toward the disco beat of the 1970s. But its all very intelligently done, and most has a very appealing, relaxed sound, as if the band were having a friendly get-together.

Our grade for audio quality is an A-minus. There is good clarity, and they avoid the annoying studio effects, and they stay away from the intentional degradation of sound quality that is increasingly popular these days. But the dynamic range is mediocre at best. Trying to compete in the loudness wars on CD results in a loss of the ebb and flow of ALO's music and makes much of the CD sound rather flat.

If you are a jam band fan, there are lots of choices these days, even though some of the biggest groups on the scene are on hiatus. ALO is one of the more intelligent such bands these days and the new CD shows them fully at their potential.

(c) Copyright 2012 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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