Never Odd or Even – Kyle Hollingsworth
Sci Fidelity Records
Over the past few years, the String Cheese Incident has moved even further away from its acoustic bluegrass, Afro-beat and calypso roots on its quest to comprise a larger piece of the jamband pie. And though they have gained a respectable amount of new fans over this time period, they have also alienated a portion of its original fan base as a result of their musical progression. There are many reasons for the group's evolution, but few would question the assertion that, of all the band members, keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth has had the foremost influence in expanding and re-proportioning SCI's sound.
So it should come as little surprise that Hollingsworth's solo debut, Never Odd or Even (a palindrome, of which Hollingsworth is fond), resembles a musical Cliffs Notes for the jamming side of post-Y2K Cheese: multifariously funky, with a clear predilection for jazz/electronica blends. But even though Cheese’s jamming style has changed, the band still tries to squeeze in representatives of all the older sounds that don’t particularly mesh with this style, which can deflate the impressive head of steam that SCI often generates in concert (how often they muck this up, though, is debatable). Never Odd or Even thus sounds to this Friend of Cheese like the first uninterrupted representative of the band in mid-jam. Combine Carnival 99 with this release, though, and you’ve got a pretty accurate approximation of what SCI’s New Year’s at Radio City Music Hall this month is going to sound like — warts and all.
Of course, since half of the album's track time is devoted to songs from Cheese's repertoire (including the four lengthiest numbers), it would have been some feat for Never Odd or Even to be completely lactose-free. Nevertheless, Hollingsworth does a nice job of re-presenting his SCI tunes (e.g. changing the time signature/tempo and adding gospel backup singers to "Don’t Say," the only track with vocals) and blending these with newer compositions, like the mad-scientist ominousness of "Gigawatt" and the cleverly-conceived frenzy of "I’ll Spew You Out," on which the musicians improvise over a sermon from a fiery female televangelist. Hollingsworth seems to have learned some valuable studio lesson from SCI’s Untying the Not, the band’s first successful attempt to sustain a unified personality on record. On Never Odd or Even, the transitions from rock to trance to new age soundscapes (and back again) never call attention to themselves. Hollingsworth and company are invested in the groove, regardless of its shape, and the sum total is made even more impressive by the compositional ingenuity behind, for example, the synth-fusion rave-up "!BAM!"
That the album's stylistic diversity goes largely unnoticed unless one has a reason to give it a closer examination (like, for a CD review, perhaps) is a credit not only to Hollingsworth's conception of the album, but to the musicians helping him make it a reality. This stellar band – which performs (too) sporadically on the Colorado circuit under the moniker Remarkable Elba Kramer (yup, another palindrome), and is comprised of Motet drummer Dave Watts, guitarist Ross Martin and bassist Matt Spencer – plays more of a supporting role here than in concert, and even when the other members do step out front, (e.g. Martin's searing solo on "Gigawatt"; guest Joshua Redman's saxophone on "The Crusader" and "!BAM!"), their contributions seem tailored to Hollingsworth's vision of the song and album. Which is not to say that Hollingsworth is trying to hog the spotlight, merely that the net result of these performances is an album with a singular character. Only Robert Randolph's pedal steel on "The Bridge" intrudes on the listener and feels out of whack with its company.Hollingsworth also made a wise decision by sticking primarily to instrumentals. Like the other members of Cheese, he still has a difficult time avoiding lyrical banality. But Never Odd or Even makes a convincing case for seeing him as the musical leader of SCI — as an artist with a strong stylistic vision who is constantly thinking of ways to integrate new sounds and ideas into the mix without inching towards schizophrenia or narcissistic eclecticism. Music like this won’t bring back fans who miss the band’s quieter island grooves and bluegrass ditties, but if SCI wants to break out of their mid-size stalemate and convince the nay-sayers that they are a top-tier jamband, they need to work together – in their song-writing, set-list choices and jamming – to create a less chaotic whole. And there are far worse ways to do this than using the moods and textures on Never Odd or Even as the collective jumping-off point.