The ‘Top Ten’ Home Grown Music Network -Studio- Albums of the Millennium
by Lee Abraham
Live music. Talk to folks about "jambands," and that’s the hot topic - how great this band was the other night, or what a killer show that band puts on whenever they pass through town. And with good reason. Live music is what jambands are all about. By and large, jambands tour like crazy and gig upwards of 200 times a year. Usually jambands mix things up from show to show. That keeps it interesting. Not only for their fans, but for themselves as well. That’s where improvisation comes in. Exhilaration too. Everybody gets off when the circle of energy kicks in between the stage and dance floor.
Those are the magic moments - the times to remember. And with the much heralded dawning of the new millennium upon us, lots of folks will be doing exactly that, glass of champagne in hand, partying with friends and reliving the points on the line that made the ‘90s a very interesting time to be a fan of live music. But as much as the live show is the undeniable backbone of the jamband scene, it’s the bands that can also make magic in the recording studio that will take this still nascent creative community to that hard to define "next level."
Sure, not everybody wants to see the jamband scene get to the next level, whatever that level may be. There has always been a segment of the scene (and society in general), that are ‘isolationist’ types, wanting to keep their turf as private property. Understandable from a 'commercialization sucks, let’s keep it pure,’ standpoint. After all, we’ve seen the problems that come with mainstream success. The Grateful Dead went through it several times. Phish too. But the reality of making it as a full-time, working band is that the more people you can expose your music to, the greater your chances of long-term success. I have never talked to a band that says, "Yeah, we wanna get so big that we alienate all our original fans, you know, playing packed stadium shows with lots of security problems and vending rip-offs." Almost invariably though, they do say, "We’re just trying to get our music out to as many people as possible." Most bands will also say that they love making music, that they enjoy traveling and playing for new people in new places. And if they can pay their bills and play music full time, they’re happy.
All that is usually true. Especially in the first several years of a band’s development. But time goes on, and regardless of how young they were when they started, at some point in most bands’ career, one or all the musicians start having families. That turns up the heat on trying to make money and makes it tougher to keep spending so much time away from home. Of course these are generalities. But the bottom line is this - while live music is great, and touring is absolutely essential, they are only a couple of pieces to the puzzle for bands making a -career- in music.
I’m not talking about hobby bands and hometown heroes that have day jobs and never travel further than the next town down the road. I’m talking about the dedicated type of full-time musicians exemplified in the ranks of the Home Grown Music Network. These bands figured out long ago that selling merchandise is a necessity for paying the bills on tour. And the best selling merchandise is a good CD. Right now there’s a few bands that are a step or two ahead of the rest. A handful have record deals, mostly of the indie variety, that could ultimately result in selling lots-o-discs and in turn, put some well earned compensation in the band’s retirement account or their kids’ college fund.
But most are slugging it out, one night at time, on their own. After the show is over and the gear is loaded, they collect the money from the door, count up the merch sales, and then decide if they’re sleeping in a motel or the vehicle before driving however many hours to the next show. OK, back to the CD’s. Specifically, -studio- albums.
Don’t get me wrong, I love live records. -Europe ‘72-, the Allman Brothers, -Live At the Fillmore East-, -Four Way Street- by CSNY, the Band’s, -Rock of Ages-, Bob Marley’s, -Babylon By Bus-, even Bowie’s, -David Live-, from way back when... these albums rocked my world. No question about it. In fact, they still do. All I’m saying though is that for the most part, there’s at least one breakthrough -studio- album, if not several, lurking somewhere in a commercially successful band’s discography. In addition to being the vehicle that thrusts a band into society’s collective consciousness and ultimately turns their project into a financial success, the CDs recorded by a band are quite literally their artistic legacy - their body of work.
Certainly tape trading in the jamband scene is a huge part of that legacy too. Same with -live- albums. But the studio record is a whole ‘nother deal. Musicians have a level of control in the studio they can’t get close to in the concert setting. As abstract as the concept is, the "definitive" version of a song from a historical perspective is usually the studio version, even if it’s not the one a band’s hardcore following swears by.
Thing is, recording in a studio is far from easy. Too sterile an environment. It can be a slow and painful process for the musicians with lots of waiting around while the engineers and producers do what they do. Some bands can’t make that transition. They need the feedback of the crowd and the energy flow of the live performance. But the artists that -can- adapt to the studio have a distinct advantage. And a shot at immortality through their music.
From that point of reference, let’s have a look at the best HGMN studio albums of the millennium. At first I was going to do a straight "Top 10." But as I dug into the daunting task of sifting through all the HGMN studio CD’s, (every single one of which, by the way, is a "good" disc), one observation jumped out rather quickly. The ‘best of the best’ actually fell into three categories- "excellent records," "classic albums" and "masterpiece works." But differentiating a rank -within- any of those categories has proven to be too arbitrary for my analytical comfort. To eliminate that exercise in futility, all of the CD’s under each category will be listed alphabetically by the artist’s name.
Last item - the top nine fell into place pretty easily as compared to the tenth slot. So, rather than make an knowingly flawed selection among the handful of "excellent recordings" being considered for the number ten position, I’ve acknowledged them together under the heading of ‘Honorable Mention."
Honorable mentions in alphabetical order of artists-
-Tracking Buffalo Through the Bathtub- by the Big Wu - Lots of jammy, song oriented rock. The highly danceable, sing along funfest, "Silcanturnitova," is easily one of the best individual tunes of the millennium.
-Of the Spheres- by Blind Man’s Sun - Wildly diverse adventures in sound with a flair for audio theatrics and stylistic gymnastics. An exciting brand of music. -Can U Get It- by Entrain - Infectious, extreme wiggly grooves with a lot of percussion and spiritual essence. Wanna dance?
-Superheroes- by the Jive Talkin' Robots - Sharp and angular art-fusion with a full throttle rhythm section. The Robots have serious chops and a lighthearted approach that come together nicely in -Superheroes-.
-Coalescence- by the Miracle Orchestra - Sophisticated, post-fusion, cool school funk. Very talented band with strong melodics and seamless grooves.
-Interplanetary Escape Vehicle- by Sector 9 - Way too much soul to be called fusion, way too many dynamics to be considered techno, Sector 9’s instrumentals may be the musical pulse of the future.
-From the Gecko- by the Slip - Lean, beyond-bop jazz trio built on articulate, expressive guitar work and an authentically hip rhythm section.
-Shed- by Viperhouse - A unique, multifaceted sound from a big band with lots of personality, artistic texture and a sense of jazzy timelessness.
OK, next up, the "Classics" - six seminal CDs that are essential to any HGMN fan’s collection. Each are powerful, cohesive listening experiences capable of withstanding the test of time - truly "classic albums."
-Crazy Wheel- by Baaba Seth From the moment I first heard Baaba Seth’s polytextured world beats at an All Good festival a couple of years ago, I was hooked. When I listened to -Crazy Wheel-, a few days later, I was blown away! Afro-rhydm guitar, a boppin’ Caribbean carnival-time bass, passionate vocals, and horns from the heart of the lion - all working together in deep grooves that resonate with a vibrant spirituality. Lyrics are also a strength. Politics, philosophy and the power of music are the stuff Baaba Seth gets into. But there’s a lot of joy in their music as well. In fact, Crazy Wheel is a celebration of emotion. Forget that Baaba Seth’s ‘studio’ was a temporally converted log cabin. They made it work - and came away with a dynamite record.
-Where the Fields Grow Green- by Ekoostik Hookah Goose bumps. That’s what I get when I listen to "Hookahville," the opening track on -Where Fields Grow Green-. Something about the warmth of the acoustic guitar being joined by the tumbling lead guitar, then the way the drums and bass kick in, only to explode in melody through the electric voice of the lead guitar. Wow! Even though it’s an upbeat tune, the lyrics still make me misty. Everybody loves singing along to this one. It’s got an exceptional melody, and perhaps better than any other song, "Hookaville's" lyrics sum up the vibe of the jamband community - "no hassles or bad attitudes." The rest of Where Fields Grow Green is great too. Mixing blues, boogie, traditional Americana and straight ahead rock, with a combination of acoustic and electric instrumentation, Ekoostik Hookah is as well rounded as any of the best jambands and more interesting than most.
-Jet Smooth Ride- by the Ominous Seapods Nobody rocks quite like the Ominous Seapods. Sorta funky with lots of sensational rhythm and lead guitar interplay, the ‘pods are electrifying performers. Outstanding songwriters too. Like all the other classic albums, -Jet Smooth Ride-, includes a bunch of exceptionally well-crafted tunes. Not to mention stunning musicianship. Yes, the ‘pods had it all workin’ during these sessions. In fact, the first six tracks are a half dozen of the finest studio cuts ever released. Simple as that. From their patented, high energy guitar shuffles ("Waiting 4 the Bomb to Drop," "Jet Smooth Ride," "Sad, Sad, Corner"), and deep, slow, keyboard fueled steamroller grooves ("Some Days"), to patched-elbow-wool-sweater, bright eyed innocence ("Theme For Another Enlightened Rogue,") and their hard partying, belly bucking, and martini swilling brand of rock and roll attitude ("Final Destination,’ and ‘Branch’s House"), Jet Smooth Ride is indeed a classic.
-Color in Bloom- by Percy Hill Cool sophistication. -Color In Bloom-, is loaded with it. creating soundscapes as much as playing music, Percy Hill makes an art form of their keyboard driven, laid-back jazz/pop sound. Let’s start with the production - it’s flawless. -Color in Bloom- just -sounds- fantastic! Lush and richly textured, the audio quality of this record is as good as it gets. While all of the tracks are first rate, three in particular exemplify the strengths of Percy Hill’s music. "Chrissy Reid," is a smooth, upbeat groove that comes to life with simple yet mesmerizing rhythmic interplay between the strum of an acoustic guitar and a swirling electric piano riff. The vibe gets a little funkier with "Ammonium Maze." Jazzy electric guitar work accents the lean, bopping bass beat, and smooth vocals alternate with a hot organ solo to give this tune wonderful dynamics. The title track is more of a mood piece - it has a timeless, almost haunting beauty. The longest song on the album, "Color in Bloom," stretches out with a dreamy, almost hypnotic vibe. If Percy Hill were painters, they would be dealing in watercolors and pastels. -Color in Bloom- is clearly a work of art.
-Night of the Porch People- by the Recipe Of all the bands among the HGMN ranks, nobody puts more heart into their music than the Recipe. Not only do they know when to rock, kicking out acoustic guitar driven, impossible-not-to-dance-to grooves, their sense of melody is stunning. And lyrically, they’re just plain fun. "Affected Specimen," is a fine example, with its double entendre spaceship imagery and good natured hillbilly charm. But the Recipe goes far beyond being just a catchy good time. In addition to stellar, male/female harmonies and wonderful electric/acoustic instrumentation, they’ve got a sense of communal spirituality ("Playground Bellyflop," and "Sibling Revelry"), and a whole lotta unabashed love in their music ("Wrecking Ball," "Bonemeal," "World Swirl")... a delightful juxtaposition of childlike playfulness and American heartland romanticism that is both spiritually uplifting and emotionally rewarding. -Night of the Porch People- is -that- good.
-Weightless in Water- by Strangefolk Strangefolk is among the premier singer/songwriters of the jamband scene. With -Weightless in Water-, they entrenched themselves as one of its brightest stars. There are several exceptional tunes on this album. A couple of the best: "Valhalla," with its upwardly spiraling intro that slowly builds to a crescendo, only to resolve in an irresistible, sing-along melody and lyrical parade of colorful characters; and then there’s "Westerly," a tune that’s working on so many levels, including tempo and intensity dynamics, as well as the delicious melodic tension during transitions between the straight ahead, ‘major chord’ rock verses, to the more whimsical, ‘minor chord’ chorus, and back again. Oh yeah, there’s plenty of honey dipped harmonies, fierce guitar work and killer rhythms too. In addition to its superior material and wonderful individual performances, -Weightless in Water- just sounds great! Strangefolk succeeded in bringing their wonderfully crafted compositions to life with beauty, and without losing the urgency that has made them one of the hottest live bands on the scene.
Now we get into the "masterpieces." These three albums are the absolute best of the best. Consistently brilliant from track to track, they are so compelling that most people who have never heard of the artist will want to own a copy of the record after hearing it. Without a doubt, they are exceptional, career defining works of art that will be enjoyed for generations to come.
-In it Again- by Jiggle the Handle Fresh as the intoxicating possibilities of a summer romance, every track on -In It Again-, is awesome... even the segues -between- songs are masterful. This album has got-the-flow... stylistically, the Jigglers take the jam wherever the mood strikes. And their compositions are outstanding too. From ethereal harmonies ("Everything"), shake-yer-booty disco ("Fine Line"), and jazzy sophistication ("Walking Backwards"), to steamrolling blues ("In It Again), open road rock ("The Dragon"), and mango drenched reggae ("Slow Down"), if it feels good, JtH can do it. With authority.
Creating such a powerful listening experience in the studio should come as no surprise. Put simply, Jiggle the Handle is a jamband supergroup. Founding member Gary Backstrom on guitar and vocals has been working the Jiggle gig since way back in ‘89. For years the project suffered from non stop personnel changes, surviving only because of Backstrom’s vision and determination. The current lineup began to take shape in ‘96, when drummer Greg Vasso joined Jiggle after a five year stint keeping the beat for legendary East coast band, Max Creek. Then came renowned ivory stroker, Paul Wostencroft, formerly of "Planet Be." Finally, "Q," bass player extraordinaire from "Hypnotic Clambake," one of the more exotic outfits on the jamband scene, entered the fold. That’s when the band Jiggled like never before.
"In It Again," the Boston based jam quartet’s second independent release (but its first with this lineup), serves up clear eyed, philosophical lyrics laced with a healthy dose of psychedelic sensibility. Bottom line: "This is your life, better start living." Grooving to -In It Again-, is a sure fire way to move in that direction... this is a phenomenal album.
-Spun- by Keller Williams It’s impossible to imagine the sounds of Keller William's unique, high-energy finger picking style as they flow off his Blond ten string guitar's fretboard like molten musical lava. There's no way to anticipate the quirky, humorous and occasionally brilliant lyrics that are so uniquely "Keller." There's also no way to get that smile off your face once the music starts.
Williams writes and performs songs the way Salvador Dali painted, with extraordinary, sometimes bizarre images, windows to perception as viewed by the extraordinary mind of a creative genius. From an erudite yet toe tapping ditty about falling in love at a concert while on line for a portapotty, to life on the road in his "Blazeabago," Keller Williams is truly one of a kind. Most of -Spun- finds the twenty-something, one man tour-de-force getting it done solo. Just an articulate voice that may remind some of a young James Taylor, and out-of-this-world guitar work that is a kissing cousin to Leo Kottke's distinctive stylings. The horn-without-a-horn "flugal" solos from betwixt William's puckered lips add a special flair and fun factor to his music... the multi-tracked, acappella version of the Pink Panther Theme is simply a whopping dose of pure, unadulterated, good time ear candy.
The title track is a percussion/space guitar noodle fest that conjures images of eastern mysticism and there's a couple of tracks with friends sitting in on bass and mandolin that give the album an interesting instrumental diversity and plenty of dynamics. Overall, this is an amazing recording from one of the most creative forces on the scene, and one of the most talented individuals on the planet.
-Pathways- by Wise Monkey Orchestra Hard work pays off. Just ask the good folks at Wise Monkey Orchestra. The more the seven headed rhythm monster from Ocean Beach, California, tours, the more awesome they become. And they tour all the time. Fresh off a successful ten city run through the ski towns of Colorado back in February, WMO locked down San Diego Recording Studios the -day after- returning home. The results are stunning.
Virtually recorded "live" in the studio, -Pathways,- is the best of both worlds - lush studio soundscapes spangled with the urgent intimacy of a hot and sweaty club performance. Blurring the lines between jazz and funk with an array of Mardi Gras, reggae, soul and Latin influences, WMO lays down edgy, horn driven grooves with a sexy, shake-yer-booty swagger. But there’s much more to "Pathways," than just a shoot-from-the-groin-bump-and-grind good time. A lot more. For starters, the vocals are outstanding. Fronted by Alley Stewart, an intoxicating May West/Acid Queen cocktail, WMO shifts effortlessly from post-hippie cool to full throttle, cyberspace buzz generator. Mix in the super-smooth, poly-octive, "pure jazz" vocal stylings of Tim Pachecho (percussion, trumpet), and the textural dynamics are undeniably scrumptious.
Musically, WMO has perfected the dynamic sophistication they’ve been working on since the band’s early days. Nobody on the scene uses horns more effectively. Just ask Dave Ellis (Charlie Hunter Trio, The Other Ones, Ratdog). The super busy saxman supreme took time out of his hectic schedule to sit in and record with slide trombone ace "AG" Geib and Pachecho for several tracks. As for the rest of the band: Scotty Homan on guitar is a knock-’em-down-smiling rhythm master and soloist from another dimension; founding monkey, Sean Hart, is an 88-key freak station pioneer - his ambient techno-gurgles and playful approach put the fun in this barrel of monkeys; on bass, Chad Stewart is a rock-steady, bottom end beatnik who fuels the highly combustible pulse of Ed Fletcher’s flawless drumming. Together, Wise Monkey Orchestra has a unique, fresh sound - without a doubt, Pathways is a masterpiece in every sense of the word.