Earth to America – Widespread Panic
With a title as grandiose as Earth to America and the expectations from several fiery post-hiatus tours, Widespread Panic give themselves plenty to live up to on their latest record. The title suggests some deep political intentions, but the album shapes up to be relatively tame, both philosophically and musically. Always averse to outright fingerpointing, the Athens, Georgia good ol’ boys aren’t about to change their tune now, which is fine — we’ll leave that to the TV pundits and the hippie-dippy west coast jamsters — but with a new producer in the hotseat and a new fire under their feet, one would hope they would do a little more with the opportunity.
Aside from the album opener, “Second Skin,” Dave Schools’ 40-ton bass bombs are conspicuously absent, leaving the rest of the band flying high, but sputtering along without their familiar firepower. The suddenly ubiquitous live epic translates well into the studio, though, rising from silence into spacey ambience until Todd Nance’s sinister beat awakens keyboardist Jo Jo Hermann’s sleeping beast. Guitarist George McConnell’s slide casts shadows in the fog, and John Bell sings a dark, sexy ghost story about the beauty and the beast in each of us. As far as mysterious, plodding epics go, “Second Skin” is nearly perfect; it’s just too bad the rest of the album can’t match it.
While the urge to sow one’s creative oats is understandable, it can sometimes lead the creator to try to fix what’s not broken. While Terry Manning has produced such heavyweights as Al Green and Otis Redding, he’s also the man at least partially responsible for dragging Lenny Kravitz’s gritty rock and soul into the bottomless pit of commercial radio on 5, and the same Billboard sheen is what drains the blood from McConnell’s otherwise solid licks on “Goodpeople” and “Time Zones” and pumps it into patchwork drivel like “Crazy.” McConnell’s solos hide beneath a mountain of subtlety and coyness, afraid to invade anyone’s sonic space, and for a band that’s always been greater than the sum of its parts, the walls that divide Earth to America are its ultimate tragedy.
Even the most tragic works have a few good scenes, though, and despite its plasticized soul, Earth to America hides some solid tunes. “Solid Rock” lives up to its name, and “When the Clowns Come Home” shows just how mean and nasty McConnell’s metal tones can sound when he and John Bell lock horns. Bell’s scratchy falsetto gets better with age, as evidenced by “Ribs and Whiskey,” though he never quite hooks up with his guitar on “From the Cradle,” and “May Your Glass Be Filled” will serve as ample recompense for those still mourning the loss of Michael Houser’s pensive balladry.
The same old thing can sometimes lead to complacency, but in the case of Widespread Panic, John Keane’s easy, Southern-fried production seems to have been worth hanging on to. Despite the overproduction and unfamiliar mixing, however, beneath the glossy, Hollywood shine of Earth to America, Widespread Panic’s rusty, creaking soul still sings porch songs from a rocking chair; they’ll just have to sing a little louder this summer to distract themselves from Manning’s neon lights.