Tool For Evening – The Big Wu
Upon first listen, Tool for Evening, the fourth studio album from The Big Wu, doesn’t appear all that much different from its predecessors: by and large, the 10 tracks on TFE display, yet again, the band’s ability to write strong melodies and hooky choruses that draw from the wellsprings of American music, and to make from these songs a cohesive and enjoyable studio album. Though they have been touring as a quartet for close to two years now, TFE marks the Wu’s studio debut as a four-piece (having lost guitarist/vocalist Jason Fladager in the summer of 02). The band doesn’t waste any time showing that they can still bring the boogie, opening the disc with the rollicking "Texas Fireball," which features some smooth ivory-tickling from Al Oikari (though, it must be said, the "Ladies and Gentlemen…" introduction to his solo by Chris Castino is a bit hammy).
As a whole, the Wu sounds tighter on Tool for Evening than on past efforts (the chorus for drummer Terry VanDeWalker’s "Dog’s Dead" is as catchy as they come) and less willing to let the groove guide their playing. When the songs do stretch out somewhat, they do so in a noticeably calculating manner — an approach that many jambands have had difficulty with and/or antipathy towards, but which the Wu appear to have embraced. It works to their benefit on "Ray Charles Can See," for example, when a reggae groove morphs into some spacey harmonized vocals which make way for an equally-interstellar synth solo from Oikari — to be succeeded, in the moment of quiet that follows, by a gradually building guitar solo from Castino that carries the song into fade-out. The same holds for "Black Rain," a chorus-less, ethereal vamp which features electronic programming, a shifting balance in the mix, and understated solos that accentuate the track’s hypnotic groove. But the results of studio forethought are far less successful on the closing "Lowdown," wherein the band fails to provoke any excitement in the listener during the nine minutes spent within the confines of a mid-tempo rock beat.
With this more pronounced focus on studio assembly in mind, I find it somewhat peculiar that the band decided to include "Jazz 88," an older Wu song that, because of its sprawling central jam and live feel, fits in much better with the songs on Tracking Buffalo Through the Bathtub than with those on Tool for Evening. Perhaps the Wu are merely making sure to retain a connection with their past, so as not to alienate members of their fanbase. "Jazz 88" is arguably the most exciting song on the album, but in relationship with the other tracks on TFE, it’s an anomaly that finally disrupts the album’s continuity. And as far as disruptions go: I must say that I have yet to develop much affection for the vocal stylings of bassist Padre Pienbique (aka jambands.com columnist Andy Miller), so his two punk/funk tracks – "Middle of Nowhere" and "Kings of Bass" – don’t work as well for me as do the others, but their manic energy does feel harnessed and directed, and thus of a piece with the generally satisfying Tool for Evening.