Every band worth their weight seems to exist in a constant state of creative flux and artistic reinvention. Few, however, manage to attain the dramatic cohesion of renewed vision apparent in the Slip’s latest release, Eisenhower. The Boston/Montreal-based trio’s fourth full-length is unquestionably a career watermark and their first complete embrace of lyrical pop. Having existed for years largely in the jazz-fusion realm, this change might strike some as rather odd. Yet the only thing odd about Eisenhower is how well this jazz-based band has created an album that stands alongside the very best modern indie rock of the last few years.
Having seen the band for the first time at New York’s famed Wetlands in the late ‘90s, I would have laughed you off if you’d told me that the Slip would eventually sound more akin to Wilco than John Scofield or Bill Frissell. But as lead singer Brad Barr pointed out, pop structures have been part of their repertoire from the beginning, “On From the Gecko and Does, we were composing songs that derived a lot from pop melodies and rock song structures. We always tried, and continue to try, to bring a twist to these otherwise traditional forms. That said, there has been a notable shift in the music we’ve been writing and performing of late. I would mostly chalk this up to what moves us, and our desire to take what we know about rhythm, melody, sonic environments, and use this as a backdrop to the songs. I felt I’d taken some steps as a songwriter—steps I attribute to things I’ve gone through in my life—that opened doors to being more expressive vocally, and this is important to me. I am thankful that my bandmates were also feeling this way.”
Early Slip fans, who developed a distinctly grassroots community centered around the band during their more jam-friendly days, might take issue with the band’s shift away from freeform improvisation and complex jazz instrumentals. If the songs on Eisenhower weren’t so lyrically and musically robust or packed with addicting hooks, they might have a point. Barr chalked up the new sound to a combination of outside inspiration and the power of simplicity, “For some reason, we feel more aligned aesthetically with what is happening in experimental modern rock music today than ever before. I think it’s a very healthy time for music, with lots of bands creating unique sounds using modern technology, but keeping the ideas of simplicity, storytelling, and a very roots rock approach to songwriting at the forefront. Our music is a response to something we hear in ourselves, and something we hear going on around us. There may be concern amongst fans of our older music, but this is natural and necessary in a band’s growth.”
The opening one-two punch of “Children of December” and “Even Rats” on Eisenhower displays the ease with which the Slip can deliver convincing power-trio rock and roll, but the most impressive tracks proved to be the more tender songs. In particular, “If One of Us Should Fall” and “Paper Birds” cut to the very core of human emotion and the fragility of our relationships with on another, while never coming across as the least bit clichéd or campy.
Barr describes the inspiration for “Paper Birds”, the album’s epic final track, as how we negotiate with “the forces that push us together and pull us apart… the desire to make ourselves “better”... and having the lid removed from the pot, getting a good look at what’s inside, and realizing we can be very complex and neurotic in what seems like our normal behavior.” That is heavy stuff for a bunch of Berklee dropouts who have pushed the limits of funky instrumental music for a decade, but a newcomer wouldn’t be able to tell such concise and emotive songwriting was anything out of the ordinary.
What sets Eisenhower and the Slip’s new direction apart from other well-written modern rock is perhaps the remnants of that very same experimental jamming and instrumental jazz composition that the group has moved away from. Although nearly every song has focused pop structure at its core, it is apparent in the open spaces and instrumental flourishes where the Slip has come from. Marc Friedman’s nimble bass dances about the songs, making it clear he is a virtuoso and not merely your average rock bassist. Andrew Barr, Brad’s brother and arguably the band’s secret weapon, utilizes his vast knowledge of complex rhythmic forms to accent the songs with a quality that is at once ethereal and tribal. It is this unique background, and the band’s ever-shifting sound, that has made the Slip tremendously hard to pin down.
Equally at home in an intimate jazz club, onstage at the nation’s premier jam festivals or playing to a crowd of enthusiastic hipsters in New York’s Lower East Side, the Slip have always been a live act first and foremost. Their recent stint opening for My Morning Jacket throughout the northeast was well-received and, judging by his praise in the New York Times and Rolling Stone, MMJ’s Jim James is a recent convert to the ever-changing universe of the Slip as well. Much like Mr. James’ group, The Slip exists on a largely genre-less plane. Is this indie rock for the jamband set? Post-jam? Post-rock? Ultimately, these titles are rather useless and limiting. What makes the Slip so unique is the fact that they spent years on the road exhausting the limits of exploratory instrumental music and, nearly a decade later, have embraced a melodic lyrical pop direction that is laid upon that foundation of their early instrumental freedom. The result is a sound that rock bands without the free-jazz background could never conceive of creating. While the Slip’s new music is in many ways a rejection of their past, one would be hard-pressed to deny its role in informing their present.
Brad’s description of his songwriting process alludes to this interesting dichotomy of lyrical focus and experimental musical expression: “Its true for me that there are many things I want to express that I cannot express on the guitar alone, though they’re pretty balanced out. I’ve always been drawn to writing lyrics. In the last few years I’ve found I’ve gotten closer to being able to really find the meaning of a song, what it wants to say, and playing with this, though it comes and goes as anything does. I’ve also found a new enjoyment in delivering lyrics, the actual performance of them, whereas before, I did a lot of singing to fill a space in the song, less conscious of what I was expressing. Often, I build a song on my own, with an acoustic guitar, usually starting with the music. From there it’s a process of building the lyrics to fit what I think the music is trying to say. This can take an afternoon, or two years. Then I’ll bring it to the band and they’ll find a way to treat it. This is just one way we write, though. We try to allow songs to sort of figure themselves out.”
What initially drew me into the Slip’s nexus was undoubtedly their musical prowess as instrumental composers and improvisers. On countless occasions, I had my mind blown by Slip sets that might only include a single lyrical pop tune amidst a flurry of mind-bending improvisation. There were so many layers and such brilliant musical complexity inherent in their music that it utterly astonished me. Today, I am equally impressed by their sets that include almost exclusively lyrical rock. The fact that my musical taste has drifted in that direction likely plays a part in this enjoyment—essentially, the Slip have coincidentally developed stylistically in accordance with my shifting musical preferences. However, there is much more at play here. The band has managed to siphon the ethereal, densely-layered beauty inherent in their early improvisation into concise vocal rock structures without losing any of their music’s original power. In most cases, they achieve even more. It can only be hoped that the Slip continues to surprise us all in the future, and remain true to the notion that all bands should hold dear: In music, stasis breeds irrelevance. They’re doing a pretty good job so far.