Is rock and roll really dead? The rhetorical question has been posed for
many years, since the heyday of modern rock in the 1960s. While punk, heavy
metal, and most recently, alternative rock practitioners all have made the
statement that rock music was alive in some form or another the question
still seems relevant in the 21st century. Today, the lack of both style and
substance in popular music has left a world of "alternative pop" devoid of
character and truly unique sounds.
Enter Widespread Panic. Their latest studio offering, "Don't Tell The Band,"
returns to raw rock and roll roots, delivering some of the band's most
powerful original songs to date. As has become its signature, Widespread
Panic relies more on the creativity of lyrics and teamwork as a band to
build the album. However, unlike their last studio album, the critically
lauded Till The Medicine Takes, this project cuts out a lot of the
external support from special guests and comes straight from the soul of the
six musicians who are at its core. There's a little hum and buzz as the
sound fades in for Little Lilly, but even so, it becomes quickly
apparent that producer John Keane has toned down the studio effects and let
the band work with their basic tools.
Little Lilly, the very first track, makes a sidelong reference to the
Beatles as John Bell playfully twists their lyrics, crooning "She came in
through the bedroom window" lending proof that the words may be "off, but
they don't feel that wrong". The Beatles allusion is not to be overlooked,
as it resurfaces again in the last (title) track of the album as well. That
reference, contained within further literary references to the "restaurant
at the end of the universe" from Douglas Adams' famous Hitchhiker's Guide
To The Galaxy series, is an important statement on the album.
While the arrangement of the instrumentation and lyrics is not
revolutionary, the simplicity seems apt to contain the sound and message of
the tunes. Imitation Leather Shoes makes an unapologetic reference to
Franz Kafka's classic "The Metamorphosis" with its dark, foreboding
narration. These songs seem to pay tribute to the great influences of the
past, while clearly demonstrating Widespread Panic's own development from
the present, into the future of modern rock.
The songs that represent Widespread Panic's renewed emphasis on guitar rock
are the numbers, Give, Imitation Leather Shoes, and Thought
Sausage. Give is one of the most powerful numbers in the band's
current repertoire and seems like the original song with the most potential
for commercial success. Michael Houser's aggressive guitar work on
Give is complimented perfectly by David Schools' resonant bass lines
throughout Imitation. Thought Sausage is a gritty funk number
that comes across like a post-modern hybrid of Parliament Funkadelic and
Guns n' Roses. All of those songs represent that dark side of Widespread
Panic: evil, nasty, downright dirty stuff. The arrangements are alive and
full of fury, but the lyrics are subtle and clever as well
This Part of Town begins with a smooth grand piano intro from Jojo
Hermann, reminiscent of Bruce Hornsby. The lyrics, written and sung by
Houser, also represent a social consciousness the follows in the footsteps
of songs like Pop Staples' Hope In A Hopeless World, from Panic's
Bombs and Butterflies album. Houser's conversation with the street
beggar in the song could also be compared to Hornsby songs like The Way
Sometimes is a more light-hearted tune, but still very effective.
Originally recorded by punk-fusion icons fIREHOSE, John Bell's husky voice
interprets the song well as he paints a picture of action and adventure on
the great American highway. Randall Bramblett puts in a cameo appearance to
lend some backing brass lines for one of the only true guest spots on the
album. Keane also lent a little pedal steel guitar to This Part of
Town, adding an extra dimension to the track.
Perhaps the most crucial song on the album is Down. It is important
not just because of the musical performance, but because it marks the
emergence of Todd Nance as a legitimate lead singer for the band. He did
sing You’ll Be Fine on the last album, but that Wasn't nearly as
great a song, nor was it sung as well. Nance's rock-solid baritone is
supported by Bell on the album, but that seems like more of a safety net
than anything else. Nance gets the job done on his own, pushing the band to
raise the bar one more time.
By this stage of their careers, some bands might let the drummer sing as a
token gesture, but that is clearly not the case here. Nance's increased
vocal prowess strengthens the band as a unit, both live and in the studio.
With five of six members singing competent lead vocals, Widespread Panic has
really begun to come full circle. Not only are the vocals selflessly shared
by the members of Widespread Panic, so are the song writing credits. Nance
wrote the verses for Give as well, even though Bell sings them.
The album does have a few shortcomings. Action Man is a confusing
tune. The tone is loud and lively, but it's hard to fully understand what
Bell is singing. The song is supposed to be about a racing horse, which is
somewhat misleading, if you don't know the name of the horse that he is
supposed to be singing about. The chorus also seems quite similar to the
lyrics of other songs in the band's repertoire like All Time Low. I
liked it better when it was an instrumental without the words, but that is
based on my own personal prejudice more than anything else. Big Wooly
Mammoth really loses out in translation from the stage to the studio,
mostly because it's a song that feeds off of crowd energy and participation.
Even the Tears of a Woman jam, normally a treat when delivered live
after a drum solo, seems forced into the mix at the end.
Overall, Don’t Tell The Band delivers upon its promise for loud and
irreverent guitar-based rock and roll. Even so, the band doesn't betray its
roots just to try and market their product. Casa Del Grillo includes
Spanish lyrics that further the Latin influence from Domingo Ortiz's
percussion work throughout the band's history. Old Joe represents the
soul of Widespread Panic best. Coming from John Bell's solo catalog, the
title character symbolizes the experiences of the band throughout its
history yet once again points towards a bright future. As he ponders the
nature of a lightening bolt, he bids the listener "live long and lucky."
The title track of the album has an undeniable bluegrass feel, as it unlocks
the door to the band's library of literary and historical influences.
Dogulas Adams, civil war, and pending oceanic disaster are all covered in
three verses, providing more sonic depth than meets the eye (or ear). At the
end of the day, this album will appeal to a wide variety of musical tastes.
So, this brings us back to the original question: Is rock really dead? It
might be close, but don't tell this band that. This album might be the CPR
that brings real rock back for good.