Sticks and Stones – moe.
Ah, that damned studio album, it has long presented an awful conundrum for the jamband. Just how does a band full of live fire and brimstone capture lightning in a bottle within the confines of the recording studio? Throughout their lengthy history, moe. has taken several approaches to this problem, ranging from jamming the Hell out of the songs in the studio, recording the songs live and then entering the studio for a series of overdubs, or taking multiple recording sessions spread out over a long period of time to craft a complex album. For their latest effort, moe. has once again opted for a new tact: renting a 150-year-old decommissioned church and setting up camp inside for weeks to compose and create a record almost entirely filled with new songs. The result of this unique effort is Sticks and Stones, which is moe.‘s most concise and focused album to date.
Undoubtedly, songcraft was the foremost thought on the band's mind, and for the most part, they have succeeded in creating interesting compositions. The opening "Cathedral" serves as a very melodic introduction with catchy riffs, which are followed by the muscular rock grooves of the title number. With the dueling twang of guitarists Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey, "Sticks and Stones" certainly evokes the hard rock of the 1970s, a theme that is revisited on the hook-laden "Deep This Time" and the more poppy but slide-heavy "All Roads Lead To Home." Speaking of the slide guitar, Garvey and Schnier raunchily ride it to fine effect on the greasy blues bombast of "Queen of Everything," the sole track on this album that truly hints at this band's explosive live power.
There are two cuts that feel somewhat out of place on this album. The first, "Zed Nought Zought," is Sticks and Stones’ sole instrumental number, and it reeks of Frank Zappa. Heavily composed with ethereal passages that contrast with more angular sections, this number takes full advantage of percussionist Jim Loughlin’s finely placed staccato phrases on the vibraphone. The other oddity is the album’s finale, the jubilant "Raise a Glass." Schnier sings a tune that sounds as if it came straight out of eighteenth century Ireland, and he’s joined by members of Umphrey’s McGee, who create a celebratory pub-like atmosphere. Guest violinist Allie Kral adds sprightly lines that provide a tremendous amount of surprising authenticity to this triumphant number. The territory of Irish folk music is an unexpected exploration for moe., but this song is wonderfully uplifting and the most impressive track of the entire album.
moe. finds success on Sticks and Stones by putting an unprecedented emphasis on songwriting, resulting in many fine melodic compositions. However, with quality charts at their fingertips, the band is somewhat betrayed by its vocal limitations, as at times their singing is more akin to moaning in key. With stellar vocals, listeners would find themselves sucked into these stories and forced to sing along to many of these catchy songs. Instead, one is forced to focus more on the musicianship, which has long been the band’s strength. Nevertheless, there is plenty to appreciate here, especially for fans of radio-friendly, guitar-driven 1970s rock.