[19 November 2003]
The idea of recording can always be an up and down process creatively and emotionally. Some artists make five to six albums worth of quality material to produce that one great album. Others tend to use everything but the kitchen sink to pad albums and give fans more than they anticipated and, in some cases, even wanted. Jam bands never seem to have that problem and so Bela Fleck has decided to try the same format. Fans can purchase two versions of this album, the single disc or this mammoth triple album. If you’re a diehard fan, you might have this one. But if you have this one and aren’t, I suspect you might find yourself asking a lot of questions.
The first disc, each of which are roughly an hour in length, begins with “Bil Mon”, a smart tune that weaves from Middle Eastern sounds to mountain to even Celtic at times, but overall it doesn’t have a clear focus. And for the next nearly nine minutes, the song ebbs and flows in this format. It also contains a seventies light FM sound, bringing Steely Dan to mind. With a banjo of course! It has ample flow but stalls near the end far too long. Bobby McFerrin makes his first of three appearances on the album with “The Ballad of Jed Clampett”, the Beverly Hillbillies tune that is remade into a hip-hop meets jazz rap. And it’s a disaster for the most part. Fleck has few fleeting moments of picking, but it just never works. “Puffy” is an adventurous tune that fares better, with Fleck’s nimble fingers offering the best entertainment.
“New Math” is another Celtic tinged track that is haunting before evolving into a sparse, strolling musical journey. What is perhaps difficult about this album is not exactly knowing when one song ends and another begins. “Longitude” is such an example as it’s keyboard noodling comes off like experimental Pink Floyd. Its partner “Latitude” isn’t exactly prize-worthy. Often, this is the problem, as there is a listless sound in the record that shouldn’t be that apparent. “Off the Top (The Gravity Wheel)” picks up a tad, but relies on a sound that is far too horn heavy. “Off the Top (Line Dance)” is an improvement, but comes too little too late.
The second disc begins with a Nordic version of what the Beach Boys might sound like on “The Fjords of Oslo”, another quirky ditty that flows into “Sherpa”, a reggae-like arrangement deep embedded in loose jazz tones. Too often though, Fleck and his fine group of seasoned musicians take the same road with the same approach. Thankfully the Chieftains are on hand to get them out of this rut with a rousing “The Leaning Tower”, finally giving the album a much needed kick up the backside. But “Mudslingers of the Milky Way” gets bogged down again in this sonic mire.
A perfect example is “Costa Brava”, a tune that seems to brim to the surface of being up-tempo or toe tapping, but makes the listener want to fall asleep. Jerry Douglas of Alison Krauss & Union Station appears on “Poindexter” and puts Fleck back on the track he should’ve been from song one—a lovable yet banjo-driven song that shows Fleck’s assets. “Prequel”, which sounds as if it could have been recorded during the American Civil War, is another shining moment.
The third and final disc offers little else from the first two, although “Next” is nicely woven among various influences and musical patterns. Sam Bush is showcased occasionally on “Pineapple Heart”, a trippy bluegrass song that is rich and appealing, which is a rarity on this triptych. By this time many will have simply given up or put the disc away, as there truly isn’t anything to get excited about. “Snatchin’” doesn’t even feature Fleck while “Reminiscence” is another slow, Ry Cooder-like attempt with mixed results. And if the 12-minute opus called “Sleeper” was any clue as to the tone of this record, Fleck also adds New York Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams on guitar for “The Last Jam”. Long, average and thoroughly unappealing, unless you are the ultimate Fleck fanatic.