Ever since the Grateful Dead cut lousy albums back in the late ‘60s, reviewers have fallen back on a certain adage: a good live band doesn’t always come across in the studio. One pictures a band trapped within the studio walls, forced to capture their live energy with no audience in sight. Many continue to see this as the central dilemma for contemporary jam bands.
The String Cheese Incident hasn’t been immune to studio difficulties. While neither Born on the Wrong Planet nor ‘Round the Wheel are bad, they’re not particularly memorable (neither album, however, is nearly as bad as a late ‘70s Dead album). At one point, I listened to each of these albums several times and only a couple of songs come to mind now. The problem is, I can’t remember too much from Carnival ‘99 and A String Cheese Incident Live—the band’s two live albums—either. Ultimately, the problem has less to do with the studio/live fault line than whether one has the ability to craft material that stands out.
On Outside Inside, the String Cheese once again ventures boldly into the studio with a fistful of new songs. The album starts out strong with the funky title track, evoking shades of Little Feat and laying down the gauntlet for all that follows. When the boys delve into Keith Moseley’s word rap, “Joyful Sound”, the band is chugging along on all cylinders. Kyle Hollingsworth’s “Close Your Eyes” qualifies as the catchiest track, with slide guitar setting the mood and piano adding a bit of spunk. The song’s upbeat temperament perfectly matches the opener, and when the group’s harmony kicks in on the chorus, all the planets line up. In these first fifteen minutes of Outside Inside, the String Cheese Incident not only succeeds, but excels in the studio. The arrangements differ a bit from song to song, keeping things fresh, and guitars, mandolin, and pianos are all carefully stacked to create a full, vital sound. My guess is that these tracks will also sound great live.
The band also offers a lucid vision lyrically, harking back to that golden era of peace, love, and understanding on Outside Inside. The lyrics may be a bit simple, obvious, and overstated, but maybe that’s the point. The wordage also offers a bit of optimism, a rare and welcomed commodity.
There are other fine moments on Outside Inside, such as “Lost”, another piece of southern-fried funk, and “Up the Canyon”, which dips into bluegrass terrain. There is also lots of great acoustic guitar work by Bill Nershi. But the steam pretty much goes out of the album after the third song. While pieces like “Black and White” and “Search” are okay, they’re a letdown after the album’s glorious opening. At ten minutes, “Rollover” becomes monotonous, while the sluggish “Sing a New Song” never feels as happy as its lyric. Instrumentals like “Drifting” and “Latinissmo” are also pleasant, but like too much contemporary jazz, fail to lodge themselves in one’s memory.
Undoubtedly fans will feel differently. They will point out that the String Cheese Incident is not only versatile, but has the ability to hop genres without blinking; that Outside Inside is a good sounding album and probably the band’s best studio effort; that most of the songs/instrumentals are good and none of them are really bad; that the thematic unity of Outside Inside makes the album’s lyrics more interesting than most of the product out there right now; and finally, that the album would serve as a fine introduction to anyone unfamiliar with the band. To all of these points, I’d have to agree.