moe.: What Happened To The LA LAs

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What Happened To The LA LAs
Sugar Hill Records
[Rating: 4 stars]

Jam band moe. have displayed a staunch, independent fortitude since their earliest days out of Buffalo, NY through its career retrospective release in 2010. That resilience remains resolute in 2012, despite the fact that the band teamed up with new label Sugar Hill Records and an outside producer, John Travis (Kid Rock, Social Distortion) on What Happened To The LA LAs. For most of its twenty plus year career, the band has had a hand in everything they’ve produced, be it concerts or its own festivals, merchandising, or studio recordings. For LA LAs, the band took the leap of faith to trust “…someone else’s hands to help us come out with something different,” according to guitarist Chuck Garvey.

What Happened To The LA LAs
is a bit different, though hardly so different as to alienate its core fan base. Indeed, most of the ten songs have been steadfast staples of moe.’s live repertoire for years. Opener “The Bones of Lazarus” – formerly just “Lazarus” – has been performed for nearly twelve years. Live, it stretches beyond the ten-minute mark, with extended preludes and climatic peaks of blazing, dual guitars. Here, with an added vocal verse and the wailing guitars of Garvey and Al Schnier still prevalent, the song is trimmed to under four minutes without losing its feisty spirit.

Travis didn’t mess much with moe.’s mind-bending musicality, but his influence is more pronounced in some songs. In the two years that the band has been performing “Haze,” it’s been played as a slow moving, dark and ambient textured dirge. But on LA LAs, bassist Rob Derhak sings lead – a Travis suggestion – giving the vocals a bit more resonance and low-end umph, and it also picks up in tempo and tone.

On the other hand, the band and Travis both had a hand in choosing what songs made it to the final recording, and moe.rons (as band fans are devoutly known) will feel right at home listening to the near eight-minute epic “Downward Facing Dog.” Written by Schnier at a time when his father was in poor health, it’s one of the strongest lyrically, putting a positive spin on the passing of time and one’s own manhood, while having loved ones around to share in the experience. At the 3:30 mark it’s got a bridge – sung by Derhak – which transitions into what was at one point an entirely different song with a different time signature and tempo and lyrical mood, something moe. fans will love.

For the most part, moe. has adhered to the pop song format, and then expanded upon that in performance. That’s pop as in The Beatles and/or Cheap Trick. To take the hint from this platter’s title, that’s obviously the case here, with 7 of the ten songs clocking in at less than 5 minutes and 4 of those at less than 4 minutes. “Rainshine” features a catchy, multi-voiced chorus, and “Smoke” ebullient bells and percussion that is belied by doomsday lyrics sung none-the-less in an upbeat tone: “Helter Skelter/Fear and Loathing/And A Pocket Full of Change.” And check out the exultant 3-minute bliss (yes I said bliss in reference to a moe. song) of Derhak’s “One Way Traffic,” a co-write with Nashville based session songwriter Steven Dale Jones. It’s damn near impossible not to swing your head side to side and tap your feet in rhythm with this ditty.

moe.’s had an affinity for covering the Blue Oyster Cult prog rocker “Godzilla.” Derhak’s “Paper Dragon” just might be his honorary riposte, written about having an ability, but being unable to use it. Like the BOC nugget, it’s got fiery guitar leads, a pounding bass line and crushing rhythm and percussion. Schneir’s “Puebla” is the most intricate song musically, with deft slide guitar laid down by Garvey, Jim Loughlin’s scintillating hand percussion, and haunting guitar harmonies. It references the Battle of Puebla, which took place during the French intervention of Mexico on the 5th of May of 1862, giving rise to Cinco De Mayo, which celebrates Mexico’s victory.

Rounding out the collection is Loughlin’s “Chromatic Nightmare,” an instrumental interlude that highlights his adroit MalletKAT skills, and Garvey’s punk rocker, “Suck A Lemon,” both written for a fan-inspired psychedelic Halloween concert in 2010. Partnering with a venerated independent record label and renowned producer hasn’t so much altered the band’s signature jam rock sound, but rather made it more … dare I say, radio friendly. The results hopefully will break new ground for the band and helping deservedly reach a larger audience beyond the jam band realm. As a special bonus for fans, the deluxe edition will come with a second disc, featuring an unplugged version of the entire album.

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