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Free Somehow – Widespread Panic

WSP Records

Widespread Panic’s new album, Free Somehow, has surely earned “the Phish review” from the mainstream press: “This band is supposedly great in concert; they aren’t in the studio; weed." This is a critical perspective no less brazen in its hauteur than right wing radio’s dismissive arguments against progressive thinking. You would think critics would get tired of writing the exact same thing every time an increasingly wide variety of bands release an album. You’d also think Sean Hannity would get tired of mislabeling every idea he disagrees with as “liberal,” then creating his own definition of “Fascism” and equating the two. No, neither pose of ignorance shows signs of abdicating its idfixe. Mainstream rock critics and Republican assclowns are not concerned with progress but with regress. Some time in the not-so-distant past, the critics invented a painfully narrow definition of popular music, and they’re sticking with it. Like the right wing misconception of “the good old days,” rock critics hark back to a fanciful time when music gave them a huge hipster boner. If a band does not try to re-create that indie/punk/psychedelic/folk Zion, they suck. Hard work, talent, creative songwriting, album pacing, and artistry are dismissed if a band does not worship at the church of the Neutral Milk Hotel.

All of the above was written before I looked up the Rolling Stone two-star review of Free Somehow, which begins: “These Athens, Georgia, guys have long been a Jam Nation favorite, consistently selling out shows without ever scoring Phish-level fame. Their tenth studio album rocks steadily, piling up grimy riffs, soul-power horns and snatches of eerie psychedelia. But Free Somehow sounds like what happens when wizened road warriors hit the studio begrudgingly.” OK, they forgot to mention weed, but they did reveal their strange obsession with the three-minute song, a staple of the jamband review template: “Unfortunately driving the songs nearor pastthe six-minute mark with solos and such, which Widespread do on four of eleven tracks, doesn’t much help.” How dare you ask me to sit still for longer than four minutes? And in what messed up world is a guitar solo part of rock and roll?

What the reviewer Christian Hoard didjournalistically speakingis no different from what Maxim did to the Black Crowes recently. I’m sure he listened to the album, but he would have written the exact same thing had he not. Is he then reviewing the album? No, he is letting it play in his cubicle then regurgitating a ready-made bit of prattle guaranteed to raise that huge hipster boner. Yeah! He dissed Widespread! How provocative! What does this do for the fans of Widespread and more importantly what does it do for an open-minded music listener? It leaves us with a limp piece of writing not worth the paper if it was printed on rat dung.

I am not a fan of Widespread Panic, but Free Somehow is a great album. It is the product of hard work, talent, creative songwriting, album pacing, and artistry. I could perhaps do without some of the harder rocking, wall-of-distorted-guitar tracks, but songs like “Angels on High,” are a treat. The track features a choice guitar part that accomplishes the rare feat of being both busy and calming. The lyrics, like all of the lyrics, are soulful, truthful, and nimble. John Bell’s singing and writing are a clever emotive force to be reckoned with. The arrangement comes straight from the Duke Ellington Orchestration Playbook, though the technique is perhaps now better known by the Phish term “including your own hey.” The guitar solo and outro section demonstrate the sensitivity and taste that can only be achieved by being a band for nigh these 23 years.

With “Three Candles,” we have more of the same. When soloing over the hard rock numbers, Jimmy Herring’s licks sound cheesy. They conjure mullets, hairspray, tight pants, and a wicked sick IROC-Z. With a better-developed harmonic pattern, Herring’s solos and chording are sonorous and pleasing. Though if I have any say in the matter I could use a few more keyboard solosa little more JoJo Hermann never hurt anybody. With “Up All Night,” the album's closer, Widespread Panic has successfully written the ultimate “last song before bed.”

Would it have been so difficult for Rolling Stone to examine the album a little more closely? I could perhaps understand if they were in agreement with me about the first two tracks, “Boom Boom Boom” and “Walk on the Flood.” But they like the hard rocking tracks, which I think should be left on the concert stage, so the beginning of the album should have sent the blood flowing to all the right places instead of the mouse searching for the jamband review template Rolling Stone has saved on their community server.

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