When talent's not enough.
You can't deny Victor Wooten's immense talent; there may not be another bassist around with his proficiency. His work with the Flecktones has won him acclaim, but he's also developed a reputation as a tremendous live performer on his solo tours. He rips out amazing streams of notes, but he can also set a funk or jazz groove with precision. It's a shame, then, that his latest album, Soul Circus, lacks the tunes and consistent energy to really be worthy of its creator.
If you need only one track to convince you of Wooten's skills, skip to the third one on the album, "Bass Tribute". The track nods to many bass greats from the past, and Wooten seems capable of imitating each of them. Near the end of the track, the lyrics ask, "What would [insert important bass player here] say?" and Wooten (or a guest in a few instances) answers with a brief line in that artist's style. This song rewards repeated listens with so many styles and musical quotations embedded throughout. Wooten obviously enjoys the playing and interacting here, and he's never less than perfect.
Unfortunately, not even this vast knowledge of bass playing across genres helps Wooten with his songwriting. Many of the tracks simply have too similar a vibe to be attention-grabbing. It's a shame, too, because Wooten's performance is flawless. When he solos, he shows the speed that people remember, but all his parts fit perfectly. Wooten's concerned with his role within an ensemble (when he could probably sit down by himself and be captivating), but the ensemble never has the raw goods with which to work.
"Back to India" shows songwriting gone wrong. The song has a vaguely Eastern feel, in that it has roots in '60s sitar tomfoolery. After the initial pleasure the sonic change provides, the track reveals itself to be just a bland copy of too much other ode-to-India balladry. During the bridge, the melody from Barenaked Ladies' "One Week" slips in. The song has potential, but it turns into just too much of a mess to be any good.
The title track benefits from putting the spotlight on Wooten (who plays both electric and acoustic). His lengthy solo shows his chops, but, more important, lets us hear his great ear for melody. Here he plays in a jazz context, but he keeps a funk sound going. That number transitions perfectly into "Higher Law", possibly the heaviest funk on the album. The slow groove never quite clicks, though. It could be that it's just too dependent on its stripped-down Parliamentarianism to take off on its own thing. The song does its job, but no more.
Any momentum the album's established with its last two numbers dies instantly with the (unintentionally?) spooky "Take U There", performed by Wooten's daughter Kaila, and "Ari's Eyes", which sounds like an outtake from Eric Clapton's Pilgrim. The slow death at the end of this disc might keep you from getting to the closing "Bass Tribute (Reprise)". You wouldn't really miss much, just a list of other bassists that have some talent (like John Entwistle and Noel Redding).
You shouldn't worry about not finishing the album, though. Nothing on Soul Circus (except maybe "Ari's Eyes" or the troubling vocals in "Natives") will send you for the eject button, but it also offers little on the surface for listeners who aren't bass nuts. Of course, if you aren't one, you could change after hearing Wooten. If you could listen to just his lines, removing the fluff that surrounds too much of it, this record would be fantastic; unfortunately, we don't have a way to do that. Aspiring bassists should give it a spin, though, if for no other reason than to learn something about just what's possible on an instrument too often ignored.
Great bassism? Yes. Great songs? Absolutely not.