[9 September 2012]
Californian quartet ALO (Animal Liberation Orchestra) prides itself on being somewhat beyond categorization. As singer/keyboardist Zack Gill explains, “We’ve never fit into any quickly digestible category. It’s just a different kind of experience.” Still, on the group’s fourth album, Sounds Like This, there’s a definite jam band underpinning, as well as a healthy dose of rock, pop, and danceable funk. Although comparisons to two of the styles biggest acts, The Grateful Dead and Phish, are inevitable, ALO manages to assert its own identity here. Sounds Like This is a catchy, fun, and relaxing record.
ALO has existed for over decades, and the current line-up recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. According to the group, Sounds Like This seeks to show their “unfettered passion, wit, and imagination while simultaneously exploring uncharted musical terrain…[with] its vibrant blend of inventive musicality and genre-blurring reach, Sounds Like This sees ALO operating with verve and vitality…”
Interestingly, the album also serves to bridge the gap between the band’s studio and concert presence by incorporating the “glorious ingenuity and adventure” of their live sound. Included in this direction is an emphasis on improvisation rather than rehearsal with lengthier, more elaborate tracks and organic production. Regardless of how anyone chooses to classify or explain Sounds Like This, one thing’s for sure: it flows like wine and never looses its intrigue.
Album opener “Dead Still Dance” instantly incorporates reverberated guitar chords, psychedelic keyboard accompaniment, rich harmonies, and simple percussion. There’s a bit of a folk foundation (due in part to the slide guitar) underneath the more elaborate timbres, which makes it a distinct sound for sure. With its wah-wah effects and invigorating rhythms, “Blew Out the Walls” is more funky and direct. In fact, it (and the whole record, really) feels like a New Orleans take on Steely Dan. As for “Falling Dominoes”, it is oddly reminiscent of David Bowie’s “Young Americans”, although it’s more free-form and relaxed. The way the vocals and guitars express the same melody simultaneously is a nice touch.
Elsewhere, the verses of “Speed of Dreams” are a bit sorrowful, which is an appreciated change of pace from the usual onslaught of positive vibes which can make Sounds Like This feel a bit monotonous. A definite highlight of the record is the ambitious and lush “Cowboys and Chorus Girls”. It opens with synthesized strings over shaking guitar chords before piano and the rhythm section turn it into a Floydian affair. For the first few minutes, it’s a standard ALO track, but its second half ventures into progressive rock territory due to its more experimental and intricate arrangements, as well as spacey properties. “Combat Zone” features some of the album’s most passionate vocals, and at almost ten minutes in length, “Room for Bloomin’” is the longest and most ambitious track here. It soars around its sections (which includes timbres similar to those in Steve Miller’s “Fly like an Eagle”) expertly. Album closer “Reviews (From Here to Zed)” features sufficient melodic closure and more slightly eccentric jams. It’s a fine way to end.
Sounds Like This accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: deliver wistful melodies with smooth singing and interesting, genre-mixing compositions. Although the songwriting seems to exist more to decorate the music than to make any meaningful statements (there really isn’t anything profound or memorable there), the elements still combine to make an enjoyable listen. Sounds Like This may not have any staying power, but it’s calming and accessible enough as it plays.