"I think it's mysterious. It has a tendency to sort of suck you in and take you on a journey and then drop you off in a really nice place."
Listening to bassist Dave Schools describe his band Widespread Panic's ninth studio album, Earth To America, you can hear the excitement and almost taste the passion. This "mysterious" feeling of a "journey" comes through immediately with the first track on the album - the eleven-minute "Second Skin." Written by Schools and longtime band-collaborator and close friend Jerry Joseph, "Second Skin" may be the band's best song in close to five years. With the help of wonder-producer Terry Manning and the huge string section he implemented (think Zeppelin's "Kashmir"), "Second Skin" was elevated from a great song, to one that will go down as Classic Panic.
"We obviously went back to our old way of doing things with Earth To America" explains lead vocalist and guitarist John Bell. What he's referring to is the contrast with their last studio album, 2003's Ball, where the songs were created in the studio, on the spot. With Earth To America (like almost all the other albums), most of the songs were road-tested first. But on the other hand, Panic made one drastic change with this album; instead of recording at home with producer John Keane (with whom they have worked almost exclusively), they flew to the Bahamas to work with Manning at his famous Compass Point Studios. More than having anything to do with Keane, this was just a chance to switch things up, to go to a new place, to have new variables, and to see how it affected the album. When asked where Manning really excelled, Schools says, "I think where his ability really came out was in getting JB to places as a vocalist. I think the vocal performance on 'Ribs and Whiskey' – it's something I've heard JB get into on occasion on stage, this sort of almost other personality comes out of him. I feel like this is the strongest I've ever heard John Bell come out on a studio record."
And it's not just JB. The new configuration of Widespread Panic as a whole has reached a new high with Earth To America. George McConnell has truly found his place and is adding his skills far more effectively than ever before. His slinky, snake-like guitar on "Time Zones" works perfectly with Bell's vocals, and his often understated guitar lines do well to keep the feel cohesive and to tie many of the songs together.
Two of the more impressive tracks are relatively unfamiliar to fans. "From the Cradle" features an incredibly captivating break-down with stop-start dynamics and an inspired performance by JB as he pushes the song to its apex. Balancing some of the more space-bound tracks, "Crazy" incorporates a wonderful structure that allows JB to tell a tale and to paint pictures with his words. JB elaborates, "'From the Cradle' predominantly came from Todd [Nance], he writes a lot of songs too. 'Crazy' we played a couple times but never very well. So we abandoned that pretty quick, about a year ago. We made two or three attempts at it, and it never felt flowy because there were more parts to it. Now here, I usually will not say things about what a song is about, but the inspiration for this song ['Crazy'] is Vincent Van Gogh, and when you listen to the lyrics I think that'll be obvious."
Two other songs that clearly stand out, "Goodpeople" and "You Should Be Glad," serve as prime examples of Terry Manning's tasteful touch. Both utilize Manning's Bahamian horn section, and both show subtle-yet-critical use of the studio. But more than anything, both swing with a confident swagger (in no small part due to the horns). While both songs are polished, they also maintain that "Panic Thing" where everything starts to move and shake, where the sound starts to take on a life of its own. Like the album as a whole, the songs are full of life and a fire that truly makes this the best album we've seen since Til the Medicine Takes.
Earth To America finds Panic stronger than we've seen them in quite some time. After the death of Michael Houser, both band and fans alike were left wondering, questioning, even drifting away from the music that had helped define their lives. Yes, things have changed. Like Schools stressed over the phone, "There isn't a Mikey here. That era has passed; it's over. And the fans can either quit bitching about it and accept it or just move on." While this is clearly true, what may be most intriguing about Earth To America is not what dyed-in-the-wool fans think, but rather what new ears hear. As producer Terry Manning states time and again in his discussion with fellow JamBase journalist Andy Tennille, Panic is one of the most mis-understood and under-rated bands of our time. Because they take chances, improvise live, and are committed to changing their setlist every night, they have been branded a "jamband." And while this term is virtually meaningless in 2006, I think it's safe to say that when trying to describe a band like Widespread Panic, it's incredibly limiting. Yes, they do jam on stage, but they also write incredible rock songs that resonate both on a very cerebral level and a deeply emotional one. Furthermore, they play so hard and with so much passion it's impossible to not simply revert to rock & roll - true, blue-collar, gritty rock & roll. The question remains, "Will people actually hear this record or simply assume they already know what Panic is all about?"
Earth to America, are you listening?
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