Let’s face it, the new album is good. It’s got Spreadnecks across the nation punching at thin air and screaming at the walls. Sure, Widespread Panic broke form, releasing an album full of brand new songs whose kinks haven’t been worked out on stage ahead of time (the exception being "Time Waits," whose lyrics are mainly composed from John Bell’s well known and beloved "Body and Soul" rap). But the plan worked, and beautifully, at that. The album comes out slick and glossy, but still shadowed by Panic’s darkness which has come to represent the band and its powerful lyrics. John Bell’s singing is at times heart-wrenching, and other times uplifting. Either way, his soul-filled voice leaves its mark heavily on this album as he sings on every song. George McConnell settles in nicely, finding his groove and riding it smoothly. The album has several highlights throughout, from the first track "Fishing" through the final song "Travelin’ Man."

"Fishing" starts the album off with slow beats and a bongo driving the temp. John Bell’s slow wailing and guitar playing is very reminiscent of "Casa Del Grillo." Listing to the song is like wandering in a dark forest, where the sunlight only rarely breaks all the way through the thick branches to the path on the forest floor. JB’s voice evokes flashes of light, like half-forgotten memories flickering on a rain-splattered windshield of a car as it drives past a town late at night.

"Thin Air (Smells Like Mississippi)" grooves out like a cross between a calypso song and a blues jam session. Sunny Oritz's bongos and JoJo Herman’s keys have a very heavy influence throughout this song. A blues funk commonly associated with the New Orleans scene pulses through the song, demonstrating JoJo’s substantial Professor Longhair influences. George is allowed to bring his unmistakable style to the table before the reigns are handed back to JoJo for some serious key pounding action. Sunny’s whistle blasts slice through the song on one occasion, as does one or two well place bongo rips. This song is destined to be an instant classic and a surefire crowd pleaser. It’s definitely a top-notch song right up there with "Action Man" and "Old Neighborhood."

By The Kayceman
"Tortured Artist" is a slower, heavily distorted tune. With creeping dark lyrics, it pulls up comparisons of Vic Chesnutt tunes that Widespread Panic has left its unmistakable mark on, i.e. "Blight" and "Sleeping Man." George’s guitar distortion fits right in on this track. The staccato distortion notes ride a perfect shotgun to JB's singing.

"Papa Johnny Road" could be called Widespread Panic’s "Tobacco Road." It also could just as easily be called Ball’s "Southern rock anthem." The beat hops along, while JB’s voice glides forward just a skip ahead of the beat. JB’s guitar and slide action seem to help push this song along, as do lyrics about laughing "so hard the devil gets scared." This track definitely seems a perfect soundtrack to a warm Southern day and a nice cool tall boy.

By J. Jasper
"Don’t Wanna Lose You," the single for Ball, definitely stirs things up. Slow beats and guitar riffs characterize this track, but the song still really moves when it has to. Listing to it one doesn’t know whether to jump up and dance, or fall down on one’s knees and pray. Between the choruses the song lights up; heavy piano key notes seem to drop down from the ceiling, while power guitar and bass riffs rip up from the floor to catch them. George shines through as JoJo's and JB’s singing carries the song along. When JB and JoJo square off in the final choruses it’s like being trapped in the middle of a musical gun dual. When the smoke clears, however, the only thing blown away is the listener.

By Pamela Rody
"Longer Look" is just that, a second glance at the hidden lead man of Widespread Panic. JB solos on this track with his acoustic guitar, and does an excellent job at it. Demonstrating his guitar chops and soothing voice, JB rolls through this track as smooth as silk. Slowly but surely, JB gives several examples of why some consider him to be one of the most under-appreciated guitar masters playing today.

"Monstrosity" lives up to its name, just burning it up, period. "Monstrosity" demonstrates what would happen if "Surprise Valley" and "Bear’s Gone Fishing" had offspring. The song at times sounds like "Bear’s Gone Fishing," but rhythmically moves along like "Surprise Valley." JB moves as well, from deep soulful wailing to hard pounding heavy lyrics with the excellent support of George’s guitar playing.

"Time Waits" is like a ballroom dance song, perhaps a foxtrot. Panic fans will instantly recognize the lyrics as lifted from the "Body and Soul" rap found commonly buried in "Stop-Go." If ever a JB rap needed its own song, this is it. As the song meanders along, JB pushes the beat with his sharp staccato playing and singing. It is great to see what started out as a JB rap mature into its own right as a Widespread Panic song. What’s really rare about this particular song is that it stared out as a vocal rap with no particular instrumentals, as opposed to songs such as "Bear’s Gone Fishing" that started out simply as instrumental with no lyrics. "Stop-Go > Time Waits > Stop-Go," anyone?

If you "like to live in a hotel room," then the last song "Travelin’ Man" is the song for you! The lyrics for this song could easily be applied across the board from the band to the fans. "Travelin’ Man" (written by Michael Houser) bears the mark of several classic Panic covers. It comes across almost sounding like a Bloodkin (i.e., "Can’t Get High," "End of the Show") tune as it intros. George's and JB’s guitar playing fit the Bloodkin groove nicely. The song definitely has a throw back to many other Panic tunes throughout it, from Sunny’s various chimes and wood gadgets to JoJo’s distorted organ keyboard. Hiding behind a slight pause in the track is a slow heavy ten-minute jam. It rolls along sounding like a Tom Waits piece with many heavy backbeats.

No discussion of the new album would be complete with out stating the obvious: Ball marks Widespread Panic’s first studio album without beloved guitarist Michael "Panic" Houser. This album is a watershed mark for Panic; the unfortunate end of one chapter and the beautiful beginning of another. It’s a fact of life that you simply can’t have the good without the bad. Panic took a risk when it released this album in the manner it did, with all new songs both on and off the stage. But the gamble paid off, and in spades. Cheers to Widespread Panic and Ball.

Phil Santala
JamBase | Montana
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[Published on: 4/22/03]

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