STRING CHEESE INCIDENT: UNTYING THE NOT

For their latest production Untying the Not (street date—September 23), String Cheese Incident has launched themselves headfirst off the twin cliffs of reflection and growth and into some murky waters that coalesce to two. It's not that they're consistently exploring life's misgivings or coming to terms with them that makes this album a departure from efforts past (for every yin, there's a yang), but rather, the overall tone that SCI has shaped around the words incorporated within—dark at times, restless during others, even innocent in nature, all the while projecting a brooding sense of contemplation underneath a veil of self-discovery. Overall, Untying the Not is an appropriately titled album that will give fans of SCI a huge breath of fresh air.

Bringing in producer Youth, whose previous studio credits include work with Orb, The Verve, and Crowded House, among others, proved to be a step in a very different direction but initially felt restless for members of the band. "I was initially a little doubtful about working with him," admits bassist Keith Mosely. "It seemed that we had so little in common with the artists he'd worked with in the past. But he had so much energy and creativity that we decided to take a chance and step way outside or our comfort zone." Inviting an original producer to work this album was clue number one to SCI's intent to depart from the ordinary. Clue two was the decision to fully utilize the studio as an instrument in and of itself to incorporate sounds SCI could otherwise not create in a live setting. Guitarist Bill Nershi elaborates, "We didn't want this album to be such an obvious reflection of what we do live. Instead, we wanted to use the studio as a tool, and as a separate but related art-form, to make music differently than we would onstage."

Loyalists to SCI will agree that the overall sound of Untying the Not is unlike any SCI album they've heard before—for better or worse. If you enjoy ambient and mysterious compositions laced with awkward monologues, dialogues, insights, and ramblings by both band members and God knows who, then this album could be the self-help you need. Admissibly, the album is rich in texture and fluidity, making for a great listen from start to finish.

Beginning with awkward ambiance, soft and delicate, coupled with random musings in the background, "Wake Up" grows into the familiar 'Colorado light rock' that permeates the String Cheese sound. Ironically, this opening track is only one of two songs on the album in which SCI's organic-acoustic raison d'etre makes a full appearance (though the intro ambiance provides some impurity). Nevertheless, one track later, on the Mosely-penned "Sirens," the band shifts into an overall darker, grittier sound that abruptly meets reggae rhythms during the chorus, reminiscent of the '80s sound that Big County made famous. Very smart.

Track 3, "Looking Glass," works well as a bridge of reflection, the lyrics of which set the tone for the album. The chorus begs, "see how far we've come, feel what has begun, we can be headed towards the sun," but unfortunately the music plays out as the soundtrack to SCI's career—this being the second (and last) song on the album that's typical Cheese. The selection does serve as a fine palate-cleanser, however, because the rest of the album takes flight in original fashion.

Enter the Pink. Enter the Floyd. The next two tracks, "Orion's Belt" and "Mountain Girl," will instantly come across with an "Us and Them," Dark Side of the Moon vibe, swimming with horns, lap-steel guitar, and soaring keys. "Mountain Girl" actually dubs monologue by Jerry Garcia's ex, Carolyn "Mountain Girl" Garcia, serving up an intrinsic dish of reflection for backdrop purposes. The pairing eventually drifts into a vocal treatment of "Lonesome Road Blues" like a Victrola dream. Keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth gets the nod on the proceeding "Elijah," which is devoted to the piano and works as an extremely profound and passionate piece that could motivate the tear ducts. For Untying the Not, this four song run presents the WOW factor that tests any pre-conception of what SCI has to offer this go round. Michael Kang, violin and mandolin guru, reflects, "For me, this is the kicking-off point of the journey. On the first few tracks we've looked inside, and now we're getting into the kaleidoscope of imagination."

Moving directly into "Valley of the Jig" presents a sort of conundrum for the listener. It's Riverdance meets Disco and while it's the most danceable track on the album it's also the most awkward, in terms of placement (after an emotional "Elijah") and theme. This track could have been left in the stables. Fortunately the remaining five tracks see a return to continuity, blending melancholy textures with very real-life themes. "Mermaids" hits an ambient note with midnight swirls developing into a drum motivated reflection of world currents ("What the world would be like if we just sank into warfare," says Kang). It's a song that Phil Collins could march to. On "Just Passin' Through," Nershi teams up with John Perry Barlow, longtime Grateful Dead collaborator/lyricist, delivering an examination of life as the highway towards death. The mood is aptly juxtaposed by the song's light, refreshing lilt, like a swim in deep blue waters.

With an extremely Beatles-esque intro and refrain splashes, "Who Am I?" has an innocent hook to it that makes the song immediately recognizable and a comfortable listen. Hollingsworth begs the question, "I turn around and life has past... who am I?," answering with "what I was I am, it all comes round again... who I used to be is still a part of me." This tune is steeped with inward emotion but with enough pop sensibility to bring it back to earth. "Time Alive" continues the Freudian theme, exploring life, love, decisions, time's inescapable healing properties, and leans towards Floydian playing (just listen to the bridge). It also happens to be the first song that drummer Michael Travis has written for the band, and a good first effort at that.

In the end, we're left with track 13, "On My Way"—a thick fog of Eastern influence, distortion and tribal drumming, which fittingly rounds out the album in a caravan of ambience. It's quite a moving end to an album that boasts original playing and very deep thought throughout. While a couple songs seem misplaced, the overall theme of inward-outward reflection-expression within Untying the Not is headstrong, remaining intact from start to finish. And though Untying the Not, more than likely, will not win a Grammy, the album will certainly win over fans and non-fans of the String Cheese Incident.

Special thanks to String Cheese Incident and Madison House Publicity.

James Houck
JamBase | West Coast
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[Published on: 9/4/03]

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