By: Bill Clifford
Maybe it was the New England water. Sticks and Stones (released January 22 on Fat Boy Records), the eighth full-length studio recording from New York-based progressive rockers moe., has been released a year and a day after 2007's The Conch, which was four years in the making. Possibly, it was the environment. Sticks And Stones was written and recorded in a secluded cathedral in the Berkshire Mountains. Or perhaps, it was returning to work with trusted veteran producer John Siket (Phish, Sonic Youth). Regardless, the result is moe.'s most concise and well-written album to date.
Fans expecting sloppy leftovers or a redux of The Conch are in for a welcome surprise. Shortly after their Labor Day weekend festival, MoeDown, the quintet holed up in the cathedral and wrote eight brand new songs and reworked two older tunes, "Conviction Song" and "All Roads Lead To Home." Gone are Wormwood's between song instrumental interludes and the audience banter of The Conch. Furthermore, since these tunes were written and recorded in just three weeks without moe.'s usual road testing, there is less improvisation and soloing on these raw, intuitive pieces. In this case, less is definitely more.
Opener "Cathedral" succinctly sums up the band's state of mind while recording. Dramatic, tensely sung verses like "Tunnel vision/ For a hundred thousand miles/ Indecision/ Focused as a tiny child," are set free with the bright, wide open chorus. Lush string orchestration, including mandolin and violin, back the electric and acoustic guitars of Chuck Garvey and Al Schnier. The title track is more straight-ahead rock, where crisp drumming and bombastic bass combine with dual electric guitars (think ‘70s Rolling Stones) propel this fun, upbeat rocker. "Sticks and Stones" fades into the ominous "Darkness." Beginning at a snail's pace, moving in slow motion, the song's protagonist pretends the situation at hand is not as bad as it seems. Jim Loughlin's twinkled mallat kat, an electronic vibraphone, playfully picks the tempo up as bassist Rob Derhak bellows out the chorus; "Who you going to blame when the rain comes in?" Building to the second verse, the fear in his voice rises, "Every tub, every bucket, every cup and every bin/ All filled to the top, overflowing at the brim." The slow motion verses and the angry chorus volley back and forth, broken up by an innocent "la la la la la" bridge. This song grows more eerie with repeated listens, too.
Guest string player Allie Kral (Cornmeal) adds sorrowful, weeping viola on Schnier's somber folk ballad "Conviction Song" and the chilling, mournful "September." Schnier has a knack for writing elegant, cinematic songs that make the listener feel a part of the scene. The playful, upbeat instrumental "ZOZ" (or "Zed Nought Zough,") features more mallat kat from Louglin and tight, thumping rhythm from Derhak and drummer Vinnie Amico.
Derhak's midlife crisis surfaces on new surefire moe. classic, "Deep This Time." Amid Garvey's wailing, screaming lead guitar and Schnier's hold 'em steady harmonies, he faces youthful abandon, singing, "Looking at forty, acting like a child." By the third verse, he's questioning marital bliss more directly: "If I were a betting man/ I bet you would try/ Living the single life/ Just one more time/ Getting so fed up/ With all the lows and highs." Nadine LaFond (Swampadelica) adds sweet harmony vocals, while on "All Roads Lead to Home" her soprano runs alongside Garvey's tenor on this studio debut for Garvery's rarely performed song from 2005. The three part harmonies, rounded out by Derhak's baritone, ride a warm Southern California feel and dual guitars that would make this song a radio staple in another era. The album closes with the rollicking, swampy blues of "Queen of Everything" and the foot stomping good time Celtic sing-along of "Raise a Glass."
The ten tunes on Sticks And Stones are short and to the point, with the focus on moe's skill as songwriters rather than their collective and considerable musical prowess. Working with Siket, they've managed to keep the flow of previous efforts minus the between song antics. As any moe.ron will tell you, the true test of any moe. studio album is how it goes over in front of a crowd, and this recording has several tunes bound to develop into future live classics.
JamBase | New York
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