One Step Closer – String Cheese Incident
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With One Step Closer, Colorado stalwarts String Cheese Incident veer the jamz into unprotected Adult Contemporary waters. The 13 excursions into mostly downtempo semi-acoustic pop is, as the kids say, "mature" and, as the grown-ups say, kinda boring. Taking on a skeleton crew of co-writers — including Nashville cult staple Jim Lauderdale, Railroad Earth leader Todd Sheaffer, somebody named Ina Grigorova (who, according to Google, might be a Bulgarian poet), and former Dead lyricists John Perry Barlow and Robert Hunter — the Cheeses seem more than happy to collaborate with their new buddies than with each other.
The best cut, Michael Kang's "Betray the Dark," sounds like the Talking Heads if David Byrne had been a pothead picker instead of a neurotic conceptual artist. It is unmistakably String Cheese: a successful fusion of rhythmic Appalaichan melody and melodic African polyrhythms. But most of the album is nowhere near as unique. For all of String Cheese's originality — that blend of world grooves with American string band music — the songs feel overrun with the grandness of holding back, like a watered-down Starbucks-approved take on The Band (with U2-like moral ambitions).
A possible scenario for the staging of a video of the album's opener, "Give Me the Love," would begin with the guys hanging out, picking and singing, on some idyllic Colorado porch which — following some flash pots and shit — soon drops away to reveal an arena stage and screaming crowd singing along on the arm-wavingly catchy "that's allllllllllllll I ask of you" stadium chorus, which (penned by cyber-activist Barlow) is simultaneously a lover's plea, an AA-like meditation on that which one cannot change about himself, and (as always) a decided philosophical take on what it means to be Good.
Despite the sweep of their vision, the band often seems the victim of creative restraint. On "45th of November," Hunter is in fine, rascally form ("playing strip poker with time / and it's your turn to deal"), but the band seems afraid to get weird. There is dramatic production, to be sure, but little of the experimental ambition of Untying the Not. With sustained basses, gently layered keyboards, and a rising accordion, the song seems poised to break into an anthemic chorus, driven by Kyle Hollingsworth’s bellowing squeezebox. Instead, it’s turned down in the mix, and the chorus flits by sleepily before a swirl of electric guitars carries the tune to its non-climax.
Certainly all of String Cheese Incident's influences are present throughout One Step Closer. The title cut has a vague reggae lilt to its underrhythms, though it could hardly be called that. "All around the walls are coming down," Billy Nershi croons, "but our love still stands true." Besides it’s amphetamine-era Dylan-like lyrics, the boogie of "Swampy Waters" could almost be lifted from the Dazed and Confused soundtrack (or the 17th volume of Steve Miller’s Greatest Hits). And "Until the Music’s Over" follows the nicely-established template for making hippies cheer. "Let’s dance like there’s no tomorrow," they sing, and — hey, lookie!, there are people who dance at our shows! and they’re cheering!
Every now and then, though, they'll do something to remind you that they're still that band on the porch: a little rustic flat note ("Sometimes A River") or a sweet melody ("Big Compromise"). Perhaps, in the video, it comes in the form of a little wink or a bong hidden in the corner — something to indicate that they're not really the rock stars they've worked to become, and maybe they do mean all that self-righteous claptrap. Hmmm.