Untying The Not – String Cheese Incident
SCI Fidelity 1015
Gentlemen, it’s about String Cheese Incident.
They’ve made a decent record.
That comes as a hard admission. I have long found String Cheese’s basic
tools to be fundamentally bunk. The fried cosmic bluegrass-reggae never
quite did it for me. The band was never offensive for its lack of talent,
but for their unapologetic blandness, a vague fusion of Phish and the
Grateful Dead without much interest in actually experimenting with the
rigorous composition of the former, or the avant-garde tendencies of the
latter. Which is why it comes as a pleasant surprise that Untying the
Not seemingly finds them constantly on the edge of their comfort zone.
Granted, everything that’s horribly wrong about them is still there,
embodied in the self-helpy acid zen of the title, the triiiiiiiiiiiiippppy
cover art by Alex Gray, the lyrics, in every chunk of the album’s DNA. But,
but, but… it’s all arranged compellingly, in a way that brings out the
best of each aspect.
Untying The Not is a studio record in the best sense. The band’s
creative decisions come not in terms of note choices or the dynamics of
playing together, but in the way they’re assembled. A lot of this will be
attributed to (and/or blamed on) the disc’s producer, Youth, bassist for
’80s post-punkers Killing Joke, and producer for early ’90s British
mainstays The Orb and The Verve. It doesn’t sound like much else String
Cheese has done. And just as one has to believe that – at
one point in time – John Lennon really believed he was the Walrus
(either literally or figuratively), one has to believe that String Cheese
are, for the moment, committed to this approach.
Listening to Untying The Not, it’s possible to completely ignore the
band at the center and focus on the dense production, like an ugly building
with gorgeous details. At each moment, one can choose to listen to the song
or the way it’s constructed. "Just Passin’ Through," for example, is made
impressionistically — slight organ swells, plucked harmonics, a distant
lead, acoustic guitar. The total picture of the song is still a bland
ballad. If it was just a straight recording of the band playing, it’d be a
snooze. But, as the song itself says, it’s a "miracle of the commonplace."
And maybe that thar’s a positive message one can glean from Untying The
Not: that even the most mundane of activities are made of wonderous
processes. But I don’t think they intended that – it’d be a mite undermining – so I feel a bit facetious recommending it as an official explanation.
Regardless, it suggests a way of listening: to enjoy the disc from
moment-to-moment and try to force one’s brain to pry the songs into
individual voices, to appreciate each minutely moving part.
It doesn’t sound like they’re trying to get played on the radio, either,
which seems an accusation some longtime fans might aim at the band. Rather,
the band seems to be going for artistic credibility — which, when ya think
about it, is an even weirder gesture than trying to make one’s self
accessible to more audiences. This is clearly a band that wants to be taken
seriously. It’s reflected in every element of the production (not to mention
the disc’s promotional materal). These are not fun and wacky overdubs, like
horn sections and harmonies. They are, pardon me, sober, and extremely
complex. They accomplish all that one might hope out of ‘em, too: they
create a sense of sonic place.
The main way they acheive this is by keeping the palette balanced. Live, the
band is five people. By definition of a live band, pretty much, they all
have parts on songs, so it’s almost always five musicians playing at once.
There’s not a lot of room for sonic depth in a large theater, so this is
fine. In the studio, where depth wins over time, there is less pressure for
everybody to play simultaneously. In fact, it’s better if they don’t. And,
to their credit, band members lay out pretty easily. On "Sirens," the verses
are comprised mostly of drums and bass. Other sounds (harmonica? feedback?
organ?) come in between verses. It is these other sounds, as well as their
production (some great echo here), are what entices. Each one is carefully
considered, and – thus – mature. In places, this approach is maybe a bit too
stifling, but it mostly works.
Frequently, String Cheese Incident takes on the stance of being shamans, of
having this vast societal Responsibility foisted on their shoulders. And
that’s a fine thing to recognize. They have a following and, thus, to some
extent, an accountability. They seemingly see the urge to present themselves
as virtuous human beings, set of morals etched from a non-traditional hippie
lifestyle. But, it often comes off as if all it means to be a good human is
to make sure someone doesn’t have a bad trip. There are never really any
social issues raised by songs like "Looking Glass," which hits a bunch of
key points in the band’s philosophical self-image, as they employ the quintessential
rock beggar(invoked briefly left dramatically undeveloped; liberal rock star shorthand
for Caring), followed by a street musician, who the narrator aides,
resulting in a folktale of the Grateful Dead-like situation, as he helps the narrator "get through the night" (whatever that means) and realize "how far we’ve come" (whoever "we"
is; being a sudden lurch into the third person plural, singer Bill Nershi
probably means the band and the audience collectively). It’s the kinda move
that seems designed to make people cheer and it feels cheap. The use of a
helped beggar allows the band to pat themselves on the back and get away
with psychedelic vaguries like "We can be be headed toward the sun / If we
free ourselves from these chains of inspection."
Even though Untying the Not contains such moments like those where
the band feels some combination of manipulative and impotent, that’s not
really what the album is about. At various points on the
album – including the short instrumental prelude to the opening "Wake Up,"
in between verses on "Tinder Box," and throughout the Celtic trance
interlude "Valley of the Jig" – samples of voices resound, flinging obscure
profundities in a stonily echoed haze. Especially in the latter, the effects
are sonically bizarre, and not unlike the voices in the darkness in Disney’s
"Spaceship Earth" ride. It’s pretty McTrippy, but weirdly neat. (And that’s
not to mention the work the samples do in reinforcing the band’s worldview
by having other voices testify to it.)
The echo haze fills the disc, eventually pouring out of the underlying
production to become the basis of an entire track, the studio creation
"Mountain Girl." As samples of ex-Merry Prankster/ex-Jerry wife Carolyn
Adams Garcia fade to noise and, then, quiet, one suddenly hears the ProTools
echo filter humming in the near-silence like an intrusive (though necessary)
air conditioner, and the band begins to sing the a capella "Lonesome
Road Blues" (a slight variation on the folk tune the Dead have long played
under the name "Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad"). It’s a cute little
contrast, especially given the amount of processing that musta gone into
making their voices sound "old." But that’s exactly what makes Untying
the Not fun to listen to. It’s not about hokum authenticity at all, but
creating the album as a self-supporting experience.
There are small moments of beauty tucked throughout the album. Former
Grateful Dead lyricist, Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder, and
public rabble-rouser John Perry Barlow turns in a few good lyrics (including
a more developed rock beggar: "You see the general on the street, he’s
begging for some change / Plants his heels into the ground in this war
against the sane"). Meanwhile, the disc’s penultimate track, the sensuous
Michael Travis-penned "Time Alive," shows the album’s true colors, as the
tune masterfully builds into the ultimate psychedelic prom slowdance as a
disco ball shoots flecks of light about the gymnasium. And, hey, that’s
For better or worse, String Cheese Incident have become the standard bearers
for their lifestyle, and they seem to know it. And, despite their attempts
to align themselves with Pink Floyd (in addition to the overtones they make
here, they recently appeared onstage with that band’s old inflatable pig,
which was maybe almost as good as getting an actual member of the band to
sit in with them) or the Dead, it doesn’t seem like they’re channeling Floyd
or the Dead at all, so much as Steve Winwood (who has also appeared onstage
with the band of late, probably not inflatable): a once "rocking" act who
later settled into a pastel FM twilight of slick soul fit for proms.
It’s stupid to get angry at people for taking pleasure in any music. Or
maybe it’s just stupid to deny that they do. String Cheese Incident are very
good at recognizing (and hitting) their audience’s pleasure spots. They
aren’t mainstream in the least, but they have factored themselves down,
fashioned their values into a style of music, and succeeded in communicating
them clearly and directly.