Self titled- Yonder Mountain String Band
Vanguard Records 79801-2
There are times when I think American Beauty has cursed the jamband scene. The Grateful Dead’s seminal work, arguably one of the greatest albums ever, seems to loom like a specter over today’s slate of jambands. The Grateful Dead were one of, if not the most spectacular live act ever, but true studio success eluded them until they tried re-inventing themselves for the sole purpose of recording an album. Since this technique yielded tremendous success on American Beauty, jambands, known for powerhouse live shows but weak studio albums, have endlessly tried to re-invent themselves within the confines of the recording studio in hopes of catching lightning in a bottle. Yonder Mountain String Band, despite their protests against being labeled a jamband, are the latest jamming outfit to yield lackluster results from studio re-invention.
Lately, recording artists all seem to gravitate toward hip producers, regardless of whether or not that producer has ever worked in the genre. In this vein, YMSB hired the services of producer Tom Rothrock. (Dude, he produced Foo Fighters and Beck! Fuck yeah!) Rothrock, anything but a bluegrass producer, was faced with the task of transforming YMSB into the high-grossing rock band new label Vanguard Records wants them to be. So put down that acoustic guitar, Adam Aijala, you’re gonna be a “real man” and play electric on a few tracks. Let’s get some drums in here, too. And Vanguard did their part, dressing the guys in dark colors and having them pose for a publicity photo with brooding looks on their faces. Super.
The resulting self-titled album yields some major duds. The first single, “How Bout You?” is the most monotonous track on the entire disc. With this yawner, YMSB sound detached and spiritless while the only points of interest are guest Pete Thomas’ drums and Aijala’s rudimentary electric guitar solo. Those drums also come in handy on the milquetoast adult-contemporary yearnings of “Classic Situation.” The closing track, “Wind’s on Fire,” is a pallid and excruciating composition, but the band does employ some feedback. Rock on.
Despite the producer and label’s misguided efforts to cloak YMSB as a “rock” band, about half the album contains some decent songs. “I Ain’t Been Myself In Years,” penned by compatriot Benny Galloway, is destined to become a classic Yonder tune, filled with a bouncy beat, colorful solos, and an emotional undercurrent of longing. “Angel” takes things in a much darker direction. The western ballad has a somber intensity until exploding into a ripping breakdown. “East Nashville Easter,” co-written by Jeff Austin and friend Todd Snider, is one of the few songs where the supposed rock influence works. Ben Kaufmann adds driving bass to a pulsating rhythm while Dave Johnston’s banjo melodically percolates underneath as Austin’s vocals whip into a revival tent-style fury. The racing bluegrass of “Troubled Mind” is vintage Yonder, complete with a frenzied tempo and blistering solos.
The two greatest assets for YMSB are their dexterous picking skills and their unique sense of humor, both of which are pretty much AWOL on this album. Yes, there are a few tracks that employ the former (how bout that entire one minute and five seconds of the pointless “Fastball”?), but there is almost none of the latter.
The successful tracks on this self-titled album demonstrate that Yonder Mountain String Band didn’t need to go to such extremes in hopes of creating a good studio record. However, they’ve been victimized by a common flaw of bands that excel in the live arena: Prioritizing re-invention over everything else will not a successful studio album make. After all, American Beauty was certainly an example of re-invention, but that was only part of the equation. Its hallmark is the stellar songcraft the Grateful Dead employed. Yonder Mountain String Band has the songwriting skills to make a fine studio album, but now it’s time for them to start trusting their own abilities once again.