Moe. is still going strong, and yes, they still know how to translate their sprawling live shows into succinct rock albums better than almost any of their jam-band peers.
What Happened to the La Las, moe.'s ninth studio album and first since 2008, finds the band in a very different place professionally. They've been running their career completely on their own for more than a decade -- booking tours, doing the merchandising, and self-producing and self-releasing their albums on their homegrown label Fatboy Records. Now, for the first time since the '90s, the band has signed with a different label, the usually country and bluegrass-leaning Sugarhill Records. They've also brought in an outside producer, John Travis, to help them with the album. The results, though, don't sound too different from what the band usually does.
Moe. has always been that rarest of jam bands: a group who understands how to effectively translate their material into studio recordings. Those instincts got a little away from them on 2008's middling composed-in-studio effort Sticks and Stones, and again when they re-recorded sprawling versions of early jams for 2010's retrospective Smash Hits, vol. 1. But Travis and the band have rediscovered their mojo on La Las, which takes much of the band's newer live material and focuses it into succinct rock songs. The only track here to get much beyond five minutes is "Downward Facing Dog", a song which coasts along on easygoing verses before hitting a catchy-but-chunky (with cowbell!) chorus. The bridge of the song drifts from slow distorted guitar chords into an entirely new bass line and vocal melody that is tangentially related at best to the rest of the song. The first four minutes of "Downward Facing Dog" are prime single material for rock and adult alternative radio, so it's no surprise that Sugar Hill has already put out a 4:35 radio edit that excises the bridge.
The rest of What Happened to the La Las is smartly arranged. Travis' production makes the guitars of Al Schnier and Chuck Garvey snarl and pop out of the speakers, while paying special attention to the low end as well. Rob Derhak's bass sounds great all across this album, regardless of whether he's doubling a guitar or doing his own thing. The band's two percussionists, drummer Vinnie Amico and multi-intrumentalist Jim Loughlin, also sound distinctive here, and Travis is also able to highlight the rhythmic interplay that often sets moe. apart from their peers. Album opener "The Bones of Lazarus" stomps along on Loughlin's latin percussion. The way the guitars shift from smashing power chords to bluesy solos to the interesting use of harmonics is fascinating. If anything, second song "Haze" ups this ante. At first it features tense minor-key verses and a hard-hitting chorus. But it hits the solo section around two-and-a-half minutes and takes off. A great guitar solo is immediately followed by a series of supercharged drum fills, which leads into another excellent guitar solo before sliding back into the chorus. "Haze" is exactly the kind of song that could easily stretch this section into a 10 or 15-minute jam live. But the band compresses it into about 90 seconds here, and the song is harder-edged and better for it.
The bulk of the first half of the album is taken up by similar material, where the guitars dominate. Moe. has always been capable of rocking out, but they haven't ever sounded this consistently chunky on an album. Besides "Haze", the best of these is probably the Derhak-penned "Paper Dragon", which has the album's best use of quiet-loud dynamics. Just as all of the distorted guitars threaten to become oppressive, though, the band starts throwing curveballs. "Chromatic Nightmare" is an instrumental track that fully spotlights Loughlin for the first time on an album. He handles the song's melody on a xylophone, while the band plays a 3/4 waltz that sounds like demented circus music. It sounds like nothing else that moe. has ever done, and it's a very welcome interlude. Also welcome is the album's penultimate track, the poppy "One Way Traffic", probably La Las' catchiest song. The lyrics, "We got one way traffic / Love's a two-way street," are undeniably cheesy, but it's wonderful to hear something so sunny-sounding after all the hard-rock crunch. The album ends with the oddball "Suck a Lemon", which marries another genuinely catchy chorus to possibly the disc's thickest layer of distorted guitar, playing underneath the melody. I'm still not sure if it works or not, but it's definitely interesting.
What Happened to the La Las highlights the muscular side of moe., and does a good job of it. This is an album that may have benefitted from a couple more change-of-pace type songs, but overall this is probably their best studio effort since 2003's Wormwood. The band's three songwriters remain some of the best in the jam-band world, and their commitment to brevity in the studio pays off in listenability.