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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1209

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Hanuman: Pedalhorse
by George Graham

(Omnivine Records 07063 34212 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/23/2000)

The music video culture has been a powerful force for... making pop music dumber, especially in terms of the level of musicianship. Knowing how to play well seems to have become a significant disadvantage commercially. Videos also seem to have shortened the attention span of their victims to a matter of seconds. So it's something of a surprise that rock bands who play long instrumental jams seem to be experiencing a significant revival. Inspired by the Grateful Dead, whose expansive improvisational performances were legendary, a second generation of jam bands has appeared and proliferated, led by Phish, who seem to have inherited the Dead's mantle, down to the modus operandi of their fans. Groups like The String Cheese Incident, Moe and some of the new Southern Rock bands like Jupiter Coyote have become known for their spirited live performances with extended instrumental improvisations, enhanced by outstanding musicianship.

At the same time, so-called New Acoustic Music maintains a following for a genre of jazzy music played on the instrumentation of bluegrass, though usually with fairly tightly structured arrangements. It would therefore seem only natural that a New Acoustic jam band make its presence known, and that is what we have this week. It's the new release by the Seattle quartet called Hanuman. This CD, their third, is entitled Pedalhorse, and it's a great blend of the funky rhythms and occasional blues influence of the jam bands with almost entirely acoustic instrumentation, including upright bass.

Hanuman formed in 1996 as a quartet featuring flute player Ben Klein, but Klein departed the group the following year leaving it as the Hanuman Trio, with guitarist Paul Benoit, acoustic bassist Tige DeCoster, and percussionist Jarrod Kaplan. They were joined last fall by guitarist and mandolin player Scott Law. Hanuman previously released a CD in 1997 with the original personnel including the flute, and a live recording as a trio in 1998. The new CD features the new quartet with Law, along with some additional guests, playing keyboards, sax and violin.

Unlike some of the other jam bands who use their instrumental prowess improvisating on fairly straightforward rock tunes, Hanuman performs compositions that are almost art-rock-like in their complexity, with shifting time signatures and fairly intricate harmonic structures. But each of the tracks on this all-instrumental album allows room for solos which show off the fine playing by all involved, on their acoustic instruments. Although there are two guitarists, Benoit also plays some Dobro and slide-style guitar, while Law plays his mandolin a fair portion of the time. On the surface, this would seem like a New Acoustic group in the tradition of David Grisman, but Hanuman are very wide-ranging in their musical influences, and most tracks feature a full drum set, while bassist DeCoster plays lines that range between jazzy and funky, so the group can sound rather electric even on their acoustic instrumentation. Their music, most of it jointly composed by the all four members, runs from funky to bluesy, to spacy to exotically ethnic. And while there is a lot of instrumental soloing, all but one of the CD's tracks come in at under six minutes.

Pedalhorse gets under way with one of its more exotic-sounding compositions. Pushkar features Scott Law's mandolin prominently, in a rhythmically challenging piece with a distinctly Eastern aura. <<>>

Taking a very different direction is the bluesy title track Pedalhorse, with Benoit featured on slide guitar and Dobro. <<>>

Well-named is the track called Tige's Funk one of three pieces on this CD also performed on their 1998 live album. It was written by bassist DeCoster and a friend named Hugh Sutton. DeCoster and drummer Kaplan prove they can lay down a great groove, even in the acoustic mode, while Sutton puts in a guest appearance on electric piano. <<>>

Taking another yet musical direction is Hop Queen, which strikes me has having a kind of tropical island feel. Another of the CD's guests, Damien Aitken appears on sax, but his sound does not seem a particularly good fit to the group. <<>>

One of the Pedalhorse's definite highlights is Baba Blues, which is imbued with both blues influence and a vaguely exotic quality, thanks to Kaplan's percussion. Both Law and Benoit play acoustic guitars, though Benoit also adds some electric lap steel guitar. <<>>

Perhaps the album's most impressive musical showpiece is Savannah, boasting a multi-faceted structure like an art rock piece, including a jazzy waltz section and dual lead guitar lines reminiscent of an acoustic Allman Brothers. <<>>

And further to make things interesting, there is the vague Celtic influence of Mothership, which features bassist DeCoster playing his bass with a bow. <<>>

The CD goes out with its spaciest track, Meera's Camel. It's another interesting amalgam of influences, including the bluesy resonator guitar, a mandolin that sounds more Eastern European than rooted in bluegrass, a pump organ and percussion evoking the Middle East. <<>>

Hanuman's new third CD Pedalhorse is a fascinating blend of influences: New Acoustic, blues, world music, art rock, funk, Southern Rock, and even a bit of Celtic, played almost entirely on acoustic instruments, though with a rhythmic drive that gives it the energy level of electric music for much of the time. The result is great listening marked by tasteful musicianship and innovative stylistic and instrumental mixtures. And while the CD's tracks tend not to be very long, this group is likely to be great in performance with enough time to stretch out for extended solos. As such, they are likely to attract fans of new jam bands looking for something a bit more wide-ranging than most in the genre.

Sonically, the album is first-rate. The acoustic instruments are well-recorded, with a rich, clean, unfettered quality, with the sound of the acoustic bass being especially pleasing. The CD also has a very commendable dynamic range, increasingly a rarity in these days of heavily-compressed in-your-face commercial hits.

Hanuman combines the sensibilities and virtuosity of New Acoustic music with the improvisational bent and rhythmic drive of the rock jam bands to create a most impressive new recording.

(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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