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Published: 2003/01/23
by Bill Stites

A Wonderful Day – Brothers Past


Since the New Year is supposed to be an occasion for hope and reflection,
here's my wish: someday, given sufficient distance, it's going to become
clear that we just lived through a critical year in the evolution of jam

We've gone through some growing pains, no doubt. As I look back on 2002, it
seems like much of the most regressive, dull, thoughtless crap drew the most
attention, the largest crowds and the greatest critical adulation. But, in
the corners and around the fringes, an explosion of creativity is undeniably
taking place. It's a frustrating time to live through, as the old and
irrelevant cling to the limelight while the young and inspiring go
relatively unrewarded. But it's gratifying to think that the year that just
finished may eventually be remembered as the time when the next great
movements of popular improvisation began to take shape.

One of the happiest developments to come out of the last twelve months for
our little corner of the world is the final obliteration of the idiotic
stereotype that jambands cannot make great studio albums. I'm sure the
lazier elements will be falling back on that convenient crutch for years to
come, but one listen to such masterful works as Lake Trout's Another One
Lost, RANA’s Here in the USA or Brothers Past’s new A
Wonderful Day
immediately exposes it as the despicable lie that it is, and in turn raises
a provocative question: why are all these younger, nearly unheralded bands
so thoroughly outshining those who are supposed to be the flagbearers of our

A few years ago, Brothers Past were a rather unremarkable hippie bar band
toiling around Pennsylvania, noteworthy only for a emerging gestalt jamming
style that de-emphasized the individual voices in favor of a group sound much
greater than the sum of its parts. Then, inspired at least in part by (face
it) their Philadelphia neighbors the Disco Biscuits, guitarist Tom Hamilton
and keyboardist Tom McKee began to lead the band in a more modern direction
that incorporated not only Biscuits-style electronic jamming, but a
decidedly English art-rock bent encompassing influences from Yes and Pink
Floyd to Radiohead. Emboldened by the potential of their past experiments
with minimalism, and fueled by a desire to move closer to the cutting edge,
Hamilton and McKee ended up parting ways with the rest of the band and
taking eight months to reassemble with a more compatible rhythm section.
Two years later they've produced rather ironclad proof that they've been
right to follow their muse to the places they have.

A Wonderful Day is a concept album. The concept is pretty unoriginal – the
fragmented thoughts of an unspecified narrator racked with insomnia – but
the reason ideas get recycled is usually because they work. In this case,
BP's moody psychedelic sound perfectly summons up a nighttime scene, and the
way the tracks are split up and blended into one another effectively
suggests a dream state. The explication of the theme given in the liner
notes is a "like," "um" and "dude" away from blacklight-poster dorm-room
stoner parody, but fortunately the music transcends their clumsy attempt to
put it into words, and vividly realizes the thought behind them.

The disc opens with "Toss and Turn," a chaotic looping pastiche perforated
by a pulsing high-pitched sample. As the drums dance around it, and various
electronic burblings fade in and out, the sample begins to become
intelligible: it's a processed human voice (or voices?) chanting the word
"sleep" over and over. As an insomniac myself, I'm pretty impressed by how
well the short track emulates the feeling of rising frustration over the
inability to break free of consciousness. Snippets and elements from the
rest of the album's tracks are incorporated into the piece, as well, making
it a true (if unconventional) overture to the disc.

"Toss and Turn" flows directly into the title track, "A Wonderful Day." The
delicate, dramatic tune is enhanced by timpani, piano and acoustic guitar,
establishing a tone of rest and placidity that the rest of the album then
slowly dismantles. Like the beginning of a sleepless night, it's
reflective, melancholy, and yet undercut by a current of hope and joy; the
mighty ambivalence captured in the key line, "It'll be a wonderful day/When
I get out of here," lingers as the song melts into ambience, and soon the
sad, Floyd-y intro to McKee's "The Ceiling" steps out of the fog. The tempo
begins to rise, and as he sings lyrics literally about insomnia and its
traveling companion, insecurity – "It's like a prison inside of these
walls/constantly reminded of all of my flaws" – the panic and paranoia that
define the next phase of the album begin to rear their heads.

Riding a wave
of growing momentum, the band drops into the disk's first full-on electronic
beat as the track number changes, and they enter part II of "The Ceiling."
Powered by Rick Lowenberg's effected hi-hat, they lay out breakbeat trance
in 28/4 time – no small feat in itself – and come quite a bit closer to
sounding like legit dance music than any other studio effort I've heard by a
jamband. After a final "Ceiling" chorus, they come to their first real stop
of the album, drawing a clear connection with their live practice of
arranging songs into segued suites.

At this point the totality of their disregard for the oft-repeated maxim
that the things that make jambands great live cannot be recreated in a
studio starts to become clear. It's not that BP went into the studio and
just jammed as they would on a stage; in fact most of the album was
meticulously pre-arranged and orchestrated. But it was pre-arranged to
preserve the best qualities of their live show while also adding the depth
that the recording process allows. It works so well that it leaves me
scratching my head as to why more improvising bands haven't taken this
seemingly natural approach to expressing themselves in the studio.

Further mining BP's interest in exploring dance rhythms in odd times, the
next song, "Night Villains," begins with a 5/4 jungle groove before sliding
into a killer left-hand piano line that wouldn't sound out of place in a
Radiohead song. The band shows a refreshing willingness to jam in the
studio, stretching on for ten and a half minutes, a good portion of which is
taken up by a volcanic Hamilton solo. The solo is arguably unnecessary, and
would probably send most producers scrambling for their scissors, but it
gives the song space in which to spread its wings, and screams wisdom on
BP's part for allowing their music to exist on its own terms, instead of
trying to stuff themselves into a mold that would only undermine their
strengths. And then they buck conventional wisdom once again, by following
up "Night Villains" with the twelve-minute epic "Monsters Come Out at
Night." "Monsters" is a great example of using a long song form to achieve
something more than a verse/chorus/verse structure could, no matter how
padded with improv. The subtle dynamic trip "Monsters" takes as it whirls
in and out of its different sections is engrossing, and, at least to these
ears, the song goes by in a flash, entirely comfortable in its length.

Having crested the peak, with the next track, "The Mirror," they begin to
back off, substituting gloomy angst for "Monsters"' frenzy and fear.
"Mirror" balances a triumphant piano/acoustic guitar intro and outro with a
sinister electronic verse, creating a potent symmetry, parallel to the album
as a whole. The next tune, "Tired Sight," risks succumbing to despondency,
but ultimately mirrors "The Mirror"'s open-ended balance, juxtaposed as it
is with its more upbeat counterpart, "Tired Sigh" ("Parabol"/"Parabola,"
anyone?) , prolonging the emotional ambiguity.

The album's final chapter begins with the creepy "Bottlecap." Easily A
Wonderful Day's darkest selection, thanks to bassist Clay Parnell's
modified vocals, it also unfortunately crosses the line into tastelessness a
little bit when a backing vocal begins repeating "I can't sleep, I can't
sleep," beating the listener over the head with the album concept. Aside
from that, though, it's fascinating, especially the expertly crafted studio
segue back into "A Wonderful Day," which references all of the previous
songs while also juggling both its origin and its destination. The return
to, and resolution of, "A Wonderful Day" works equally well thought of as
daybreak after the long fitful, night, or as the narrator finally drifting
away to sleep, ending his torment. Either way, after nearly 60 minutes of
virtually uninterrupted fear, self-doubt and pain, the release is palpable.
They've earned it. The listener is left to feel as though s/he's been
guided in safe hands through all these perilous realms, and the coda,
returning to the piano and timpani-supported arrangement of the song's
intro, deposits you softly right back where you started, feeling renewed.

Ten months passed between the initial recording of A Wonderful Day
and its
release. As the album gestated, its creators grew into its promise, as
though hearing an idealized version of themselves helped them better to
realize the rather lofty goals they've set. As a piece whose creation
spanned much of the last year, the album says a lot about the ways in which
they, and jam music in general, grew in that time.

The single most surprising thing about A Wonderful Day is not its
songwriting, or flawless production. It's BP's willingness to embrace a
spectrum of emotions that has too often been neglected by the previous
generation of improvising bands. It reflects an understanding that bliss
and peace mean more when allowed to coexist with life's more unpleasant
realities. The greater emotional range makes greater nuance possible,
allowing more sophisticated textures to come through. In other words,
Brothers Past seem to have reached maturity. I'd like to think they are a
harbinger of growth for our entire scene in that regard.

What we've seen in the last year is a new generation of bands coming
forcefully into its own. A common theme among them is a desire to rescue
the studio album as an institution, to re-invest it with meaning in an era
in which live recordings are widely distributed within days after the
performance. Brothers Past have done that by creating a studio album that
takes their live experience as a starting point and refines it into
something deeper. It stands apart from their live material, a necessary
supplement whose existence enriches all of their shows. In the process
they've set a challenging example for other bands who would aim to
accomplish the same thing. A Wonderful Day defines its period in
history, casting its shadow on every show they play. Isn't that how it was
supposed to work in the first place?

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