Downstream – New Monsoon
New Monsoon isn’t there yet. Despite concerted efforts, New Monsoon’s
"Downstream" doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself. The band’s three
percussionists invite comparisons to the Allman Brothers, and the Latin
rhythms they accent invite further comparisons to Santana. Lyrically, their
giddy positivism ushers in the String Cheese comparisons, and they openly
court the Grateful Dead comparisons. Nice company to keep if you can run
with them, but this septet from California can’t hold the pace.
Part of the trouble is that the band sounds a little like each of those
forerunners and not much like itself. The influences are clear, but the
band stays within the limits their predecessors set rather than stretching
beyond them to forge their own sound. There is no defining instrumental
voice. Jeff Miller’s electric guitar tone is a by the book
rock guitar tone. The banjo and dobro are too low in the mix, and the
piano, while often lively, doesn’t jump out.
In an album with but a few exceptional spots, it is the weak spots that stand out.
The lyrics are often cliched ("with the joy of a child/ and with
wild"), and the vocals bury each other. As on the title track, there is
often too little harmony and too much of the vocalists just singing at the
same time. The same can be said of the drums, which too frequently fall
into a rhythmic blob. The strictly percussive "Chakar Dar d’Abaji" proves
that these three can play, but they slip into the trap of playing too much,
filling all the gaps and leaving a nearly solid bed of rhythm that loses
potency in its pervasiveness. When the music measures up, as is the case with "Painted Moon" and "Velvet
Pouch," the lyrics lag (the former confirms that the world does not need
explicitly about psychedelics, and the latter follows suit).
The instrumental opener, "Mountain Air," flashes
many of the things the band does best. The percussionists play with rather
than atop each
other. The piano moves; the banjo flies; the electric guitar leads the band
into changes that
resolve in the, "Today is a happy day," neighborhood of Toots and the
Maytals’ "Pomp and Pride," and for a moment all seems right with the world.
However, the album never reaches a similar peak.
Downstream may very well be a stepping stone for a band quickly on
the rise. This may be the album that starts it all. Right now, it is an
album from a band that sounds like it can do better.