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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1376

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Raq: Carbohydrates
by George Graham

( 50458 32382 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/29/2004)

The jam band phenomenon is leading to a lot of interesting places musically. Led by of popularity the band Phish, who recently gave their valedictory, a number of worthwhile bands are appearing who not only play extended improvisational rock, but are taking the jam philosophy to acoustic music, bluegrass and even mixing it with the symphonic compositional style of art rock.

This week we have a recording by a group which I suppose could be considered a kind of hybrid between a jam band and a progressive rock ensemble. They call themselves Raq [spell] and their second CD is called Carbohydrates.

Vermont has become a hotbed of jam band activity. The most famous example is Phish, who hail from Burlington, but there is also Strangefolk, and now Raq also hails from the Green Mountain State. The band has been together for three or four years now, and made their first national tour in 2002. They have already been attracting attention on the concert circuit and been nominated for awards in the jam band world. They do owe a lot of their outline of their sound to fellow Vermonters Phish, with the same standard four-piece instrumentation, guitar, keyboard, bass ands drums. They can also write the fanciful polysyllabic lyrical lines that hint at Phish, especially in their band's earlier days. But Raq also borrow from the progressive rock book going back to the 1970s for the kind of virtuosic instrumental lines that turn up from time to time on Carbohydrates. At other times, they can get rather funky, incorporate some rather retro sounds, and show some of the eclecticism of another bright light on the jam band scene, String Cheese Incident Combining all of that, Raq offer up a CD featuring solid musicianship, interesting, creative material, and a sense that just because they ally themselves with jam bands it doesn't mean that they have to put extended solos into every tune. In fact, many of the tracks are not what one would consider "jam-length material." But there are a lot of other facets that make for enjoyable, and even fun listening, with the band's flair for sudden changes of mood and tempo.

Raq consists of Todd Stoops, keyboard man and probably the most prolific composer in the group; Chris Michetti on guitars and vocals; Jay Burnwick bass, and Greg Stukey on drums. All but Stukey also do vocals.

Leading off is a piece called Shirley Be a Drooler, rather typical of the playful side of the band, showing their Phish influence. But rather untypical of what one would expect from a jam band is the track's succinct two-and-a-half minute length. <<>>

Illustrating some of the band's eclectically funky tendencies is another Todd Stoops composition, The Down Low. <<>>

In rather typical Art Rock fashion, there is a track that has a kind of reprise or second chapter in the end of the CD. Beauregard is an obliquely worded piece about a killer who is revenged by other characters in the song. <<>>

In another departure from the expected, the band includes an instrumental track that would seem like an excellent vehicle for some jamming. Indeed the group members do jam a little on The Hunter Becomes the Hunted, in all of its one minute and ten seconds of length. <<>>

One of the songs by bassist Chris Michetti is Brother from Another Mother. The piece launches into a kind of classic art rock trip, while the lyrics tell the story of a pair of half-brothers, one of whom is illegitimate, as they say. <<>>

There are a couple of lengthier pieces on this album of often terse tracks. The one extended instrumental is essentially the title track Carbohydrates Are the Enemy. The Todd Stoops composition is a definite highlight of the CD, with its first-rate musicianship and lots of mood and musical color shifts in its seven and a half minutes. <<>>

There is one track that leaves one wondering if the band were serious about the tune or whether it was done as a joke. Sweet Cream Butter is done in a kind of unctuous soul style, with lyrics that might raise an eyebrow. <<>>

Another highlight of the CD is Hannah Can, a relatively lengthy track that comes close to being a more conventional jam band track with lots of opportunities for instrumental solos by the band members. <<>>

One of aspects I enjoy about jam band scene is that it is encouraging a new generation of music fans to have longer attention spans, instead of listening to packaged pop songs served in three-and-a-half minute doses. Raq, on their new CD Carbohydrates is interesting in that they embody the musical philosophy of the better jam bands, but on their CD they can be very succinct, including some fairly intense instrumentals that time in under three minutes. But they can stretch out when they want to, and sometimes they do want to. Fans of Phish will probably find much to like about the band, to the point that Raq could be accused of being a Phish clone at times, but they also move more into Art-Rock / progressive rock territory with complex arrangements and some impressive musicianship, and along with some playfully quirky lyrics. It's a nice combination of diverse ingredients that come together well in the band's style.

Our grade for sound quality is about a B-minus. Everything is audible and the sounds of the individual instruments and vocals has decent clarity, but as is typical these days, the recording was heavily compressed leaving it sounding flat and lifeless, with everything at more or less the same volume, devoid of much of any dynamics.

There are plenty of jam bands on the scene today. Some still think that if you get on stage and noodle around on your instruments for a long time, as they did back in the 1960s, that you are somehow creating great art. A jam band without solid musicianship and a large supply of ideas can be a great bore. Raq's music not all in the jam band style, but the group does have both those desirable traits in abundance. In answer to what they call their music, they describe it as "aggressive improvisational rock." That is probably a fair description for this recording by a band who in my opinion has already risen to the upper echelon of the jam band scene.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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