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Published: 2004/04/27
by Brian Ferdman

The Hillary Step – Jupiter Coyote


Having survived for over 13 years and veterans of nearly 3,000 shows, Jupiter Coyote date back to the second wave of jamband history. Theirs is a lofty position shared by such luminaries as Phish, Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors, and the Dave Matthews Band. However, Jupiter Coyote have never come close to matching the commercial success of their more famous brethren. A band enduring for thirteen years is no small feat, but why has Jupiter Coyote never grown in popularity, remaining relegated to concerts in small clubs in a minute geographical fraction of the country? I hoped that their latest album, The Hillary Step, might provide the answer.

The album's title is a reference to Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest. The final 200 feet to the main summit of Everest is known as "The Hillary Step," and it is at this point where climbers make it to the top, decide to give up their quest and climb down, or meet their untimely deaths. Jupiter Coyote's press release states, "With CD burning and pirating at an all-time high, it is barely cost effective for many bands to make records these days, so this release represents the Hillary Step for Jupiter Coyotes. [sic] It's a dynamic body of work and one the band hopes will take it to the top." If The Hillary Step truly represents their bold attempt at ascension, someone had better start loading up the yaks and call a sherpa because Jupiter Coyote needs to back down the mountain before someone gets hurt.

Unfortunately, this album is predominantly a collection of monotony. It's polished monotony but monotony, nonetheless. The majority of the songs are played in similar tempos with extremely generic backbeats. The instrumentalists are capable but often resort to pedestrian strumming in lieu of a more creative path. To their credit, the vocalists in this band can sing and harmonize, but when they croon banal lyrics, the vocals make little impact. After 45 minutes and nine tracks, not one tune, solo, or lyric on The Hillary Step stands out or makes much of an impression.

Wielding a mix of acoustic and electric instruments, Jupiter Coyote relies on power chords and relatively simple figures in their songwriting, which seems to focus on early '90s hard rock with a touch of watered-down newgrass. While a rudimentary slide guitar solo or sluggish fiddle run makes an appearance, The Hillary Step suffers from repetitive rhythms. How many times can one listen to ballads with a hi-hat tap on one and three and snare slam on two and four? And while the sound is clean and relatively mistake-free, a song such as the seven-minute and forty-three second acoustic newgrass number like "Fade" leaves the listener begging for someone to take a noteworthy solo.

"Crazy Women" is probably the most effective and mildly catchy effort on the release. But even here the competent vocals are lacking in passion. Then again, one can't be too passionate when singing mundane lyrics, such as:

_Crazy Women— that’s the only kind I know.

Crazy Womenkeep me running for the door.

Crazy WomenI guess they're all the same.

Crazy WomenI got my foolish heart to blame._

As a special bonus, a two-and-a-half hour DVD, entitled Jammin’ at the Jammer, is included in the package. The DVD is a slightly more interesting output, if only for the increased variety in song selection. The performance is highlighted by a rather milquetoast, electrified "Blackberry Blossom" that segues into sprightly "Lucky Day Jam," punctuated by Steve Trisman’s sweaty fiddling. After John Felty finishes a laborious slide guitar solo so generic that even Bob Weir could scoff at it, the band smoothly transitions into the bouncy and enjoyable "Cindi." In addition, it should be noted that Count Mbutu plays auxiliary percussion throughout the concert, and Darius Rucker (of Hootie and the Blowfish fame) sings backup on one song. It’s not nearly enough to keep the average listener on the edge of their seat, but the fans in attendance seem to be having a great time.

After listening to both The Hillary Step and the accompanying Jammin’ at the Jammer, Jupiter Coyote’s main weakness becomes apparent. Despite their polished sound, the band seems stuck in the early nineties. While their colleagues have absorbed multiple influences and developed technical proficiency, Jupiter Coyote is still cranking out laborious Southern rock riffs with basic backbeats and uninspired lyrics. Apparently, this sound is still attractive to a portion of the population in the South, but until they make a serious attempt at evolution, Jupiter Coyote will remain mired in relative obscurity.

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