Monday, September 7, 2009
CONUNDRUM - A Review
In the digital age the album and CD has gone the way of the dinosaur or dollar-a-gallon gas, becoming an anachronism. The delivery system of choice is a digital download and in a throwback to the early days of rock, single song purchases are now the standard. So along comes a group of musicians who bring with them a full-blown concept album. This is pretty heady stuff, a collection of originals spanning a variety of musical genres, chock-full of thoughtful lyrics and soaring melodies. What's most striking at first listen is you can't easily put your finger on their genre. It's roots stretch from funk to jazz to rock and psychedelia, all combined to create a sound reminiscent but never derivative. It’s a collection of songs that always seem to be pulled from the back of your memory, haunting and complex in construction.
The album opens with PURPLE TREES and the tone of the album is really set here, with the piece driven forth by Jason Ott's robust bass and Jake Huffman's rolling percussion. The song builds and soars due Jeffrey's precise guitar, very much in control but always on the verge of melting down. Jeffrey Howard's guitar work falls pretty squarely between Trey Anastasio and early Jeff Beck, technically deft but fluid, sleek in its pursuit of the rhythms through this album. Next up, the instrumental BRI, (IN MEMORY OF) is a memorial to a phallen phriend and allows the band to utilize Jake's earnest vocals to their best advantage. Quickly ascending, the song forcefully sweeps you up to a chilling vocal peak and then carries you safely down the other side. GUILLOTINE MACHINE is a remarkable song, loose and jazzy, quirky in timing and tone. Jason’s bass thunders throughout, stalking the torrid guitar and staccato drum work with equal vigor.
Now we find the center of the album, it's core. A suite comprised of 4 songs, inspired by Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, with each song able to stand alone or as part of the cohesive whole. The songs echo the winding motif of the source novel and lyrically mimicking it’s text and themes. KILLING TIME sets us off slowly at first with the tempo and jamming becoming increasingly more intricate before inevitably collapsing in a raucous finish. This is my favorite song of these four and it has just a stunning jam when played live. SEA OF WISDOM brings a smooth turn to the album with soulful lyrics and a cool, crisp tone. DYNNE is a slippery, coiled beast, briskly snaking its way along. The pace is deliberate as the groove dissolves only to re-establish itself more forcefully as the vocals ramp up leading to the song’s end. RHYME & REASON starts innocently enough, drawing the listener in, again the vocals on this ring true and clean with not a hint of doubt or restraint. Multiple timing and tempo changes reflect the theme of journey or revelation that runs through Juster’s novel. Together these songs fully satisfy, and provide fertile ground for further exploration and improvisation.
CONUNDRUM holds a mirror up to many of the themes previously explored on the album and is an impressive work musically. Combining classic rock themes and a swing vibe that’s infectious, it also provides a showcase for some of Jake’s most exuberant drumming. Closing out the album is PLEASE REFUND THESE SLEEPING PILLS, a ukulele and bass ditty that illustrates the band’s sense of fun and features lead vocals from Jason. CONUNDRUM is a very textured and diverse work, it’s hard to believe these guys have only been working together for a year. The musicianship and song craft are both mature and their musical fundamentals are rock-solid. The sound production on the album is full and rich, focusing on the band’s strengths and providing an excellent representation of their live performances. This is a rarity, it’s common practice for jam bands to offer up weaker studio albums leaving much of the energy and vitality to the live show, however this is a great studio album, fully reflective of The Mclovins live show.