My lone Sister Hazel concert experience came on a sweltering St. Louis day at an outdoor festival somewhere around the release of their third album, Fortress . While in hindsight it can be said that, at that time, the band was beginning a slow walk down from the summit of their greatest successes, they were a treat to watch.
The Gainesville, Fla.-band will never pass for mothers of invention, but what they do well, they do well. Their best was certainly on display in that show. The band’s earnest approach, big heart and tight instrumental accord served to underscore their uplifting, seize-every-moment message.
Fast forward to 2008. While the band is not the unqualified success they were near the turn of this century, they still enjoy a substantial following of devoted fans and possess the same perpetual joy for performing. Likewise, over the band’s history, they have consistently been able to translate their genuine chemistry and affinity for each other to both the studio and the stage. Relative to the music industry at large, it would be fair to call Sister Hazel’s story a feel-good one.
It would be a natural choice, one would then assume, for the band to record a new live disc (their second) in front of a supportive audience in an intimate studio. Pairing the album’s sound with its setting, the quintet peels away a few sonic layers, aiming for a warm, acoustic sound. On a live album, and especially one that strips a significant element like electric instruments, a veteran band has to rely on two elements to bring a true, shining moment into being: energy and creative re-invention. The biggest problems with Before the Amplifiers come via inconsistent follow-through on both fronts.
Sister Hazel has long been a band with a strong and energetic presence. Many of the album’s tracks still brim with that energy and confidence. Others inexplicably feel flat in sections or altogether. A set that has a wholly different feel, as in a totally acoustic show, can be hard to stay up for. Sixteen tracks just ends up being too long to keep the feel going. By this album’s end, the proceedings begin to resemble a marathon.
There also must be a concerted effort to give a fresh spin to songs fans have heard 1,000 times. That effort must be paired with solid execution. In this instance, Sister Hazel has the effort but falters at times in the execution. Take two of the band’s biggest chart hits for example. “Happy,” when it was first released shone brightly because it delighted in the three-and-a-half minute pop song itself as an art form. It also possessed a hell of a melody that could knock over even the biggest skeptic. On Before the Amplifiers , the track is a mostly dour affair. They make “Happy,” well…anything but. The band’s initially somber take sucks all the life out of that great melody. By the time they make their way to a galloping instrumental section, it’s far too little, way too late.
“All for You,” the catchy ditty remembered for its ubiquitous chart presence in 1997, now begins with a lilting guitar rhythm that is part James Taylor, part Jack Johnson. The band comes to a grand pause and shelves the figure before diving into an otherwise traditional version of the track. The opening doesn’t work. It essentially wastes a minute in an attempt to add relevance to a song that’s still relevant (pop tracks like that always have their place).
When energy and/or arrangement suffer, it emphasizes every lyrical truism or average melody the band has written. Sister Hazel, though solid pop songsmiths, have gone a long way on energy and quality envisioning of what a track should sound like in the studio. Strip some of that away and the great tracks will survive while the mediocre will get exposed every time.
That being said, the band is able to pull off a couple of great renovations. Opening track “Champagne High” from Fortress , arguably one of the band’s best compositions, still sounds terrific, with its gorgeous harmonies and mournful tune. The a capella coda the band tacks on brings added gravity to the song. Ryan Newell’s slide guitar licks (Newell has always been a very thoughtful, technical player) bring a rootsy, rustic feel to “Your Winter”, appropriate for a song that starts with the words, “Gray ceiling on the earth has lasted for a while…” The sober treatment that fails on “Happy” works well on the reflective “Just Remember.”
Longtime fans will appreciate the scope of the album’s tracklist, ranging from “the very first Sister Hazel song that ever was” (“Feel It”) to tunes from 2006’s Absolutely . Devoted Sister Hazel fans will probably appreciate the chance to add something “different” to their collection. But for anyone else who might be feeling nostalgic for the late ‘90s, you’d do better to go back and pick up a copy of Somewhere More Familiar or Fortress .
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