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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1337

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The String Cheese Incident: Untying the Not
by George Graham

(SCI Fidelity Records. As broadcast on WVIA-FM 9/10/2003)

The revived phenomenon of the jam band continues to enjoy popularity. The concept of a rock band getting into extended instrumental improvisations, as a jazz musicians do, seems to be in part, a rebellion against the current sound-byte oriented, video-driven commercial recorded sound product that is marketed to people who have been seemingly programmed for short attention spans. It is also part of a kind of retro scene in which young people find themselves attracted to the music of their parents, who listened to the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band over thirty years ago.

A new generation of jam bands has emerged, some taking advantage of the fact that it's not hard to get up on stage and noodle away at your instruments, while others are taking the music to a new level, bringing a quality of musicianship that considerably exceeds what the rock bands of the 1960s could muster. In the latter category is The String Cheese Incident, a Colorado group that formed in the mid 1990s, from what the members describe as quartet of "ski bums" who found themselves getting increasingly serious about their music. After moving to Boulder, Colorado, they picked up their fifth member and began what has become a rather fascinating musical odyssey. Attracting audiences with their intelligent jams that are a combination of first-rate musicianship, inventiveness, eclecticism -- with influences running from bluegrass to Latin American music, and a general spirit of good fun, they have attracted legions of followers -- some of whom are literally that, people who in the manner of Grateful Dead fans, would follow the group from city to city on their tours. So the band set up a travel agency, plus an independent ticketing agency and a record company, and have become an interesting phenomenon in the music business. They also encourage fans to record their concerts, and for those who can't muster the recording equipment, they have been releasing a continuous stream of live concert CDs. And the String Cheese Incident is very much a live band. Up to now, their best CDs have been recorded in performance.

Now the String Cheese Incident are out with a new studio album called Untying the Not, and it marks quite a departure for the group. For one thing, this quintessentially American band enlisted a British dance and techno producer who goes under the name "Youth." And this bluegrass-influenced group who are at their very best improvising in front of an audience have made a decidedly structured, layered recording which owes a lot to very old Pink Floyd in terms of its retro art-rock sound and sound textures. The result is an very interesting record that nevertheless is likely to cause consternation among some of their fans.

The String Cheese Incident, with Michael Kang on electrified bluegrass-oriented instruments like mandolin and fiddle, Michael Travis on drums, Bill Nershi on acoustic guitar, Kyle Hollingsworth on keyboards and Keith Moseley on bass, last released a studio album, called Outside Inside, two years ago, and for me, it was not the group's best effort. Some studio jam material was included, but the overall result paled compared to the group's continuing stream of live recordings.

This time, the band approached the recording not as a studio version of what they do live, but as a completely different creative experience, which is evident from their bringing in a British techno and dance producer. Untying the Not became an interesting departure for both the producer and the band. The group's members comment on how they allowed "Youth" to alter the planned stylistic direction of songs, while the String Cheese Incident definitely was much more of a live-oriented group than is common in the world of studio-constructed dance material.

There is an unmistakable retro feel to the recording, from little touches like the old-fashioned mellotron keyboard to the fact that the tracks are run together like a 1960s art-rock concept album, and grouped to some extent by subject. Another interesting feature of the album is the insertion of recorded spoken voices, some of which help to tie the tracks together. The group also gets decidedly philosophical in their lyrics. And perhaps most telling is that the shortest tracks on the CD are the instrumentals, with all three running under three minutes. In fact, the longest piece on this CD is only about five and three-quarter minutes, this from a band who can easily pull off a twenty-minute jam and make it sound interesting throughout.

Leading off this 14-track CD is a Bill Nershi composition called Wake Up. Nershi explained that it was a song he had written in the 1980s, but not yet recorded, feeling that its dark quality might not be right for the String Cheese Incident's concerts. One can hear the retro sound that exemplifies the CD. <<>>

Also quite a departure from the trademark String Cheese Incident sound is the Keith Moseley composition Sirens, which was inspired by the songwriter hearing a bunch of ambulance sirens outside his house, and thinking about one's mortality, something that is belied by the song's bouncy, reggae-influenced chorus. <<>>

The first of the instrumentals the short track called Orion's Belt, which also evokes the quality of old Pink Floyd records, rather than the bluegrass-influenced jamming that is String Cheese Incident's calling card. <<>>

A major departure is Mountain Girl, which is the nickname of Jerry Garcia's ex-girlfriend. She had become friends with the band and was hanging around the studio as the band made their CD. The band taped her in conversation and together with Youth, brought some of the sampling and looping techniques to this piece to form a kind of sound collage. The result is fascinating. <<>>

The track called Elijah represents a further facet of the group's experimentation on the CD. The piece was written by and features keyboard man Hollingsworth, and comes off as a kind of folk piano ballad with some retro keyboards brought in. It was inspired by the death of the friend of the band at an early age from a heart attack. <<>>

The String Cheese Incident have included Celtic influence in some of their jams. This time, with the opportunity to try some experimentation in the studio, they do a piece called Valley of the Jig, inspired by such groups as Afro-Celt Sound System and Eileen Ivers, mixing Celtic with techno. This sort of thing has been done a number of times before, so the sound is not so much a novelty. But String Cheese seem to have a good time doing their take on the Celtic techno thing, and it comes off well, complete with samples of voices. <<>>

If there is one track that does not work well, it's Just Passing Through, by Bill Nershi and John Barlow, of the Grateful Dead's entourage. The combination of the weak vocal and the somewhat maudlin lyrics that are supposed to be tongue-in cheek, detract from the otherwise worthy recording. The band writes that this is an instance in which hired producer "Youth" changed the direction of a song from what was originally a bouncy country-styled tune into the darker piece it is. Here the band should not have listened to the producer. <<>>

Released as a single from the CD is Who Am I?, by Hollingsworth., which is a kind of lyrical follow-up to Just Passing Through, though this more upbeat 60s-oriented song works a lot better on the CD. <<>>

The String Cheese Incident, probably the best rock jam band playing today, have created an album that is a considerable departure from their musical persona. But that is specifically what they set out to do. Rather than try to capture their jams in a studio setting, especially with their series of live CDs and their practice of releasing recordings of every concert they do, they decided to get together with a British producer of techno and dance music and engage in some definite experimentation in the studio. The band members say that many of the lyrics were written as they went along recording, and songs changed sonic and stylistic direction from what was originally envisioned. But the overall result is a satisfying recording that shows considerable creativity and worthy musicianship. But it is definitely not a jam band-style record, and how the band's growing number of fans will receive it remains to be seen.

Our grade for sound quality is about a "B-plus." There's a lot of sonic manipulation, some of it at the expense of fidelity and dynamic range, but for a rock album in the current era of declining audio standards on CDs, it's not bad. At least the vocals are not intentionally distorted, and the samples are not allowed to dominate the sound.

Even though this is not a jam band record, The String Cheese Incident once again shows that they are musically head and shoulders above most current and past groups in the genre, by taking on such an experimental recording and succeeding as well as they do.

(c) Copyright 2003 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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