Current Issue Details

Buy Current Issue

Reviews > CDs

Published: 2003/08/28
by Mike Greenhaus

Terra Firma – Acoustic Syndicate

Sugar Hill Records 3963

Acoustic Syndicate are jam-rock's Jekyll and Hyde. On stage, the group's
extended songs mix bluegrass, jazz, reggae and rock, with careful touches of
funk added in for good measure. But on disc, the North Carolina based
quartet are a refined, studio savvy ensemble. Their short, crisp cuts are
slightly twangy bluegrass, repressing the group's more eclectic tendencies
in favor of carefully constructed, earthy cuts. Sure both versions of
Acoustic Syndicate come equipped with the same DNA, but they have two
entirely different personalities.

Take Terra Firma for example. The group'ss newest disc is an enjoyable
collection of country-rock and bluegrass powered pop. It's full of short,
sweet songs, inspired by Bela Fleck's banjo and the relaxed aura of
Americana. With Bryan McMurry's banjo featured prominently, even Terra
Firma's more straightforward pop numbers earn their country-rock crust.
Yet, the jazz, funk, and reggae touches Acoustic Syndicate adopt on-stage
are more carefully woven into the group's south-east inspired framework. A
fine example of how the studio can be used to capture a jamband's energy,
Terra Firma isn't afraid to bury solos and acoustic jams in favor of fleshed
out songs. While this straightforward approach does create some repetitive
patterns and overlapping themes, it gives Terra Firma its own, fresh

Opening with the sunny "Vanity," Acoustic Syndicate declare that songwriting
is an important focus for the quartet. Despite "Vanity"'s up-tempo beat, its
lyrics are filled with irony and subtle sadness. The track's troubled words
wind in and out of the quartet's quick interplay, creating a short,
enjoyable slice of bluegrass-rock. Though the group's tendencies to stretch
out are clear during "Vanity"'s bridge and McMurry's banjo licks, Acoustic
Syndicate reign in their tendencies to meander. This template provides the
blueprint for Terra Firma's twelve cuts. With the help of special guest
musicians saxophonist Jeremy Saunders and dobro player Curtis Burch,
Acoustic Syndicate use their studio setting to fill out their sound. The
quick, scripted interplay between Saunders and McMurry recalls fondly the
Flecktones' best moments, while the jazzy beats from drummer Fitz McMurry
show the group's jam-roots peering out beneath the Syndicate's studio
setting. In short, Terra Firma is fun summer-evening music, added by sweet
harmonies and abrasive acoustic guitars

"Better for This," one of the album's strongest songs, is an excellent
example of Acoustic Syndicate's studio approach, multi-tracking different
layers of guitar, banjo, horns, and tight vocals. Studio refinement also
accents the quartet's vocal abilities and this polish helps reveal their
intelligent lyrics. "Red Birds" explores life's sullen daily mysteries; a
reworking of the "love will see you through" mentality. Acoustic Syndicate's
Commentary is a distinct folk-ballad waltz, also exploring life's
unanswered questions and Earth's natural beauty. On "The Ballad of Marie St.
Lauriette," bassist Jay Sanders is allowed to shine, holding down the
group's rhythm and taking centerstage when his bandmates get a bit quiet.
With acoustic guitarist Steve McMurry and upright bassist Sanders laying the
band's natural bedrock, Acoustic Syndicate's mellow lyrics and abrasive
guitar gel nicely. Though bits of reggae, and even funk, are apparent, they
are a part of the album's energy instead of its style.

Towards the end of Terra Firma two things start to happen. For one thing,
the group starts to open up their songs to more improvisation, as evident on
the seven-minute title track and the five-minute romp "One Way." "Terra
Firma"'s extended jazzy saxophone solos allow the track to breathe and build
up to a gradual, heroic climax. Similarly, "One Way"'s psychedelic rhythms
show off Acoustic Syndicates' concert textures, with Saunders sax adding,
quick bursts of energy. The song's banjo explorations also give the track an
exciting outro; a preview for what "One Way" might sound like in concert.

Yet Terra Firma also begins to sound repetitive. Built around verses,
chorus, bridges, and brief banjo workouts, each track's energy is sedated
not by its craftsmanship, but by its similar sounding structure, as if
flowing into one continues song. Each song's lyrics seem to tackle similar
introspective obstacles that give the album a single, conceptual theme. On
the one hand, this method creates an earthy, explorative concept which ties
the disc together. On the other hand, it does begin to get somewhat generic,
at times sounding like jamgrass peers String Cheese Incident. But, on the
whole, Terra Firma is an enjoyable studio disc from the live
stalwarts. Its deep lyrics provide a nice soundtrack for reflective summer
afternoons and, soon, autumn evenings.

Show 0 Comments