The String Cheese Incident returns with another Jerry Harrison-produced effort, opting this time to write material and debut it in the studio rather than on the stage. It’s as varied as you might expect, filled with songs that run the gamut from familiar jam band fare to disco and bro country. If it doesn’t throw you to the ground and insist on conversion by force, it nevertheless manages to impress and inspire discussion.
Bands that make their psychedelic bread and butter from life on the stage sometimes fail on plastic. The ceaseless exploration on the boards missing, the songs can seem stiff, stifled, the antithesis of the freewheeling, tightrope walking when you buy a ticket or download a soundboard recording. SCI has danced around that pitfall here and though one can’t say that the compositional approach this time out should get the credit (or the blame), the moments when you beg for one more soaring solo or the roar of a crowd are nil.
Then again, the assertion that these live bands are incapable of creating exciting studio works has its faults. What were Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty if not coherent statements that exploited the Grateful Dead’s strengths as writers? It would be a stretch to draw a direct line from those efforts to Believe but all three thwart chatroom wisdom by finding the joy within and working it as hard as possible, though work isn’t a word that springs to mind often while listening to Believe.
A skeptic or cynic could call the disco-soaked “Stop Drop Roll” self-indulgent, goofy, derivative, misguided, but it proves night on impossible to dismiss. The hook (“Staying up all night while the party goes down”) arrives early, repeats often and bores its way into your consciousness like a corporate logo. Though we’ve heard the disco motif used elsewhere (down to the late-moment modulations), there’s something refreshing about this one. Sandwiched between an admirable (and successful) go at contemporary country (“Get Tight”) and the dramatic, Pink Floyd-cum-Pure Prairie League “Flying”.
The latter tune serves as one of the record’s rare missteps, a moment that threatens to transform Believe from an admirable and successful experiment to an admirable but flawed one. In truth, the call becomes harder to make once we hit the LP’s back end. The sunshine-soaked power pop/new wave jaunt “So Much Fun” could have been a new high point for the band (and maybe it will be) but, surrounded by two lesser numbers (the closing “Beautiful” being the record’s nadir), its light is dimmed.
What works best are the carefree but thoughtful songs that invite us into the special world SCI has created with producer Jerry Harrison. The ebullient “Believe” has all the charm and buoyancy of a post-Lowell George Little Feat with a sense of adventure that recalls Harrison’s former bandmate Adrian Belew’s melodic remodeling. “Sweet Spot” will likely become a favorite of the bassist in your best local cover band. It’s armed with all the stuff that makes a hit without the possibility of ever becoming one.
There are some outstanding moments, including the acoustic-driven “My One and Only” and the sweet harmonies of “Down the River.” Both are bound to become synonymous with String Cheese Incident. That’s no easy feat given the band’s history: Outfits approaching 25 years since their start rarely soar to new creative highs and some simply can’t be bothered. SCI proves itself different and that desire for adventure, that commitment to its art and its fans accounts for the pleasure one takes in hearing Believe. In the end, what else could one do?