"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Thursday, June 30, 2005

In Your Ear
Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
String Cheese Incident
One Step Closer
Yellow Bus Records, 2,800 yen
The most common, and occasionally even justified, complaints leveled against so-called jam bands are that too much emphasis is placed on long, meandering instrumental solos and that after a while all the songs sound the same.

Neither applies to One Step Closer, the latest studio effort from the Colorado-based String Cheese Incident. While longtime fans may bemoan the lack of bluegrass-flavored tunes, One Step Closer is by far the band's most cohesive and democratic album to date. All five members of the band contribute at least two songs, all take turns as lead vocalist and, with the exception of keyboard maestro Kyle Hollingsworth, all play guitar on at least one track.

To a some extent, String Cheese Incident have taken up the mantle of the Grateful Dead as touring torchbearers of hippie counterculture. Like the Dead, they've always been primarily a concert experience with live recordings being preferred over studio work by most fans. One Step Closer may change that.

Grateful Dead collaborators John Perry Barlow and Robert Hunter are partially responsible for the album's two most atypical songs. Barlow teamed with SCI's mandolin and fiddle whiz Michael Kang to pen the catchy U2 pastiche "Give Me the Love" that kicks off the disc, while on the ambitious "45th of November" Hunter and Hollingsworth fail to reach the heights the former scaled with Jerry Garcia.

The album's title track is a typical SCI uptempo, upbeat bit of sunshine from guitarist Bill Nershi, who also cowrote ballad "Big Compromise" and the rootsy "Farther" with singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale. Other standouts include the rocker "Swampy Waters," a song that wouldn't sound out of place on a White Stripes album, and bassist Keith Mosley's radio-friendly "Sometimes a River."

No eight-minute guitar solos here, just tight rock grooves and catchy hooks. For those who still prefer live Cheese, the Japanese edition of One Step Closer includes a companion disc with eight live tracks recorded at the 2004 Bonnaroo Music Festival, enough to tide the faithful over until the band revisits Japan for dates in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka at the end of September.

North Mississippi Allstars
Electric Blue Watermelon
Buffalo Records, 2,500 yen
Another group of Bonnaroo stalwarts, the North Mississippi Allstars, blend elements of '70s rock, hip-hop, and traditional southeastern U.S. fife-and-drum music with a heaping dose of energetic delta blues on Electric Blue Watermelon.

Slide guitarist Luther Dickinson and brother Cody (drums) combine their high-intensity attack with rock-solid bass guitarist Chris Chew to reenergize the blues genre. The brothers, sons of top Memphis-based producer Jim Dickinson (Ry Cooder, The Replacements), have been recording since their teens, working with blues greats like R.L. Burnside and most recently backing up John Hiatt on his latest album, the excellent Master of Disaster.

Electric Blue Watermelon starts at full gallop with the driving blues of Charley Patton's "Mississippi Boll Weevil," downshifts into a bluesy hip-hop groove as the band teams up with rapper Al Kapone on "NoMo." Other guests include Lucinda Williams, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Robert Randolph on tracks that run from Stones'-style rock shouters to jangly pop. "Bounce Ball," a fife-and-drum track by the late Otha Turner--a Dickinson family mentor--closes the album with the relaxing chirping of north Mississippi hill country crickets. An only-in-Japan track "Dragonslayer" tacked on the end, returns the listener to the present day.

(Jun. 30, 2005)

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