I have never been a fan of the jam band genre, whether of the old-guard Grateful Dead / Allman Brothers variety or the ‘90s revivalist movement spearheaded by the likes of Dave Matthews Band and Phish. Because I had always lumped The String Cheese Incident into the latter group, up to this point I had only ever given them a passing listen. But on One Step Closer the bluegrass-colored quintet has turned out a 13-song collection that simultaneously redefines who The String Cheese Incident are and what a jam band can do.
Openly inviting comparisons to The Band and their approach to recording the landmark album Music from Big Pink, Kyle Hollingsworth, Michael Kang, Keith Moseley, Billy Nershi, and Michael Travis recorded One Step Closer at a friend’s Boulder, Colorado home instead of in a proper studio. The result is an assortment of songs that evokes an early evening, after dinner feel. The songs unfold as if you’re sitting around a large kitchen table or in a laid-back, rustic living room with old friends, but there is surprisingly little room for complacency in the setting. Instead, it brings out new ideas. Contributing what could very well be the philosophy behind this album, Nershi gets a hand from Nashville’s Jim Lauderdale in penning the line “Sometimes you have to dare yourself / To make it good for someone else” on the outstanding “Farther.” The focus here is more on actual songs versus extended jams, and it serves the band well. Each member of The String Cheese Incident sings and contributes at least two songs each on the album, and producer Malcolm Burn (Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Daniel Lanois) shares songwriting credits on three of them, including the stand-out tracks “Give Me the Love” and “Until the Music’s Over.”
One Step Closer opens with a plea for new beginnings and that is just what The String Cheese Incident has delivered on this fifth effort. A song that begins almost hymn-like with its simple lyrics and straightforward arrangement, “Give Me the Love” builds over the course of its three-and-a-half minutes, and provides the band a cathartic statement, asking for forgiveness, understanding, and love as they explore this new approach to their music. And once this statement is made, all comers are welcome to join in the reflective and fun expressions the band has to offer.
Keith Moseley emerges here with “Until the Music’s Over.” With the playfully nonsensical opening of “My heart’s like a stopped clock, / Twice a day it’s right on time”, the lyrical hooks take hold and stay with the listener long after the album has been set aside. Moseley’s stamp can also be found on the only song credited to the entire group, the other hook-driven number, “Drive.” Again, despite the confused logic of the harmonizing chorus (“It ain’t over, close your eyes and drive”), the melody here is undeniable and well-executed, and the song is destined for road trip playlists throughout the summer.
One Step Closer represents a new beginning for The String Cheese Incident. While there aren’t any extended jams committed to the album—all tracks stay under the five-minute-20-second mark, while never feeling confined—there is obvious room for expansion when played live. This approach gives The String Cheese Incident the ability to reach a whole new audience with One Step Closer, while still remaining connected to their existing fans on the road. The cynic could construe this self-aware approach as overly calculated. But speaking as a new fan of the band, based on this album, there is more to be gained by celebrating the treasures herein than by complaining about any perceived change in the music’s purity.