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The Slip


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4 1/2 Stars


The best rock album of the year.


"A real band at last."

- The Guardian, (UK)


"The Slip have come up with something few others in the mainstream dare these days."

- Village Voice, NYC


Music criticism is something of a thankless job, because there is always someone who thinks they know more about what you're writing about than you - which is usually true - and then there are the people who don't, but think they do. What's more, music criticism is sometimes the bastion of people who can't play music, but wish they could, and so to compensate for the fact that they can't, the take on an air of intellectual superiority. The net result is that music criticism can become a pissing contest between pompous, condescending "music snobs," nursing secret, (and not so secret), inferiority complexes.


For these reasons, I try to avoid music criticism, at least in public. But occasionally I'm motivated to write about this or that show or album. This is one of those occasions.


On Tuesday, November 7, - Election Day - Boston power trio The Slip will release a new album entitled "Eisenhower." Before we go any further, I should make the following disclosure. I have known the members of this band and its management for almost eight years, and at various times considered various members of the extended Slip family to be friends. I've put on Slip shows at my college, put them up in my home, and jammed with them at four in the morning. I've traveled on the road with them, and we have a many mutual friends in common. And yes, they played my birthday party two months ago.


Does this disqualify me from writing an "objective" review of their new album? Maybe, but guess what? I don't care. And besides, anyone who tries to claim that art criticism is the domain of objectivity needs his or her head examined. What I'm going to do is approach this album as fairly as possible. I like the album, and will be giving it a good review. You can chalk it up to, "Oh well, he knows them, so of course he's going to write positive things," if you want, but I hope you won't, but will rather approach this review with an open mind.


The Slip is quite possibly the best band in America.


But wait, a little background is in order. The Slip, which consists of brothers Brad and Andrew Barr on guitar and drums, and Marc Friedman on bass, have been playing together since the mid-nineties. While the Slip creation myth is shrouded in a mysterious fog, certain things are known. For example, the three players really began to get serious while students at the Berklee College of Music in the late 1990's, drawn together by the school's jazz and performance focus. By the time I arrived at Berklee in 1999 for the Summer Jazz Performance program, I had already met them through a mutual friend and seen them live during one of their early West Coast tours. That summer, as they bounced around Boston in the Grey Ghost, a slightly suspect silver Econoline van, I kept running in to them on the street, going to various shows, etc.


At that time, they had already released "From the Gecko," a weird and interesting album, on an indie label run by a member of the Allman Brothers Band. The material can be described as jazz standards on speed, progressive rock, and weird fugue-like tunes with multiple time signatures and parts - very interesting, but not entirely coherent. Still, those of us who heard the music knew the band was special and had potential. At first, we thought The Slip was basically a "musician's band" because some of the material was not very accessible, and even occasionally difficult to listen to - including 45-minute jazz-fusion instrumentals that sounded like, well, 45-minute jazz-fusion instrumentals. But there were also more orthodox rock tunes, the occasional cow-funk workout, and the rare tune that could actually be classified as pop.


Fast forward about a year. Toward the end of Summer 2000, I was bored and looking for something to do, when I noticed The Slip was about to launch a West Coast tour. I'm not exactly sure how this happened, but I ended up traveling with them for about three weeks, over the course of which time the band played about 15 shows. Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Arcata, Ashland, Eugene, Portland, Seattle, Missoula, Moscow, Idaho (yes you read that right), and a few other dates that I'm forgetting now. Clubs with names like Palookaville, Satyricon, Wild Duck, and Snake and Weasel will forever be emblazoned in the minds of West Coast Slip fans. The shows were small, intimate, and completely off the hook. It was pretty wild - everything from packed quasi-riots in Seattle, Missoula, and Portland, which has one of the most hardcore Slip fan-bases in the country - to playing rock covers for two people drinking Budweisers in Moscow. The vibe at the Moscow show was so bad, that Brad became physically ill and had to join Marc and Andrew 45 minutes into the set - at which point they engaged in a massive CCR workout.


In between, we checked out massive old-growth redwood forests and watched whales off the coast of Northern California, went to weird hippy parties in places that most people don't know exist, ate a lot of breakfast, and drove a lot, including the time we left one kid at a rest stop in the middle of Montana, before noticing that he was missing about two hours later. I think Marc missed a Bass Player magazine interview on account of that. All in all, we had a caravan of about six vehicles, including my white Subaru, which was the scene of some fairly intense discussions of Bill Frisell, Amon Tobin, and other musical and philosophical themes. In general, it was the type of experience that you never forget.


At the time, I think a lot of us could sense a fairly deep kind of emotional, or even spiritual, intention or motivation on the part of the band. It was about the music, but it was about other things too, like community, and a fairly real motivation to try to "heal the world through music," as the saying goes. We knew that there was some fairly inscrutable and powerful things going on in the minds of these three guys, but it was hard to nail down just exactly that was. What we did know, was that they were all outstanding musicians - even then, considered by aficionados to be among the most talented at their respective instruments in the country. Over the next couple of years, they put out another couple of albums, some studio and some live, and continued their grueling touring schedule, slowly building a fierce fanbase around the country. Using the Internets, a lot of us got to know each other, trading live concerts, going to shows together, etc - and we developed a cool community of people.


But there was a problem. Despite our best efforts, and for a variety of a reasons that need not be explored in detail here, The Slip just couldn't seem to break through, to move up from the small club touring circuit. Their studio albums, while improving, still lacked the professional production values and overall coherence that characterizes "Eisenhower," their current release. Management was in flux, agents came and went, and there just wasn't a sense that as an organization, the band had its act together, despite a growing and loyal grassroots fanbase. I remember discussions where disbanding was mentioned. That did not happen. Other players and configurations were tried to supplement the core trio, and while some of those were very good, like the quartet Surprise Me Mr. Davis, there was simply no substitute for the original.


Which bring us to the band's current release, "Eisenhower," set to hit stores on Election Day. The political subtext of all of this is neither unintended nor particularly subtle. But let's focus on the music, shall we - and leave the politics to the professionals.


Produced by The Slip and up-and-coming Beantown music scientist Matthew Ellard, "Eisenhower" is the band's best sounding, most mature record yet. The production values are outstanding - lush and big, yet without sounding overbearing. The sound that these guys have teased out of this trio is huge - I suppose the definition of a "power trio" is that they sound much bigger than a trio - think Led Zeppelin (basically a power trio), Rush, The Who, and Black Sabbath. The song selection is meticulously organized to give the album a definite narrative quality. "Children of December," a song that Slip fans will be familiar with, is an upbeat and appropriate way to start the album, with its almost taxonomic series of shout-outs to the band's family members and each other. As in previous Slip albums and concerts, the opening song can be thought of as an "invocation," a prayer to the gods for thanks and grace. But the track also shows an almost existential awareness of the unique time we find ourselves in: "The nineties are over, so what do we call this decade?" It's a rhetorical question, but one worth contemplating. "Even Rats," another familiar tune, showcases the band's superb rhythm section, the guitar player's fantastic tonal acuity, and a wonderful double-time-half-time tempo dynamic. A fun tune - perfectly appropriate for the number two slot.


Things start to get serious with "If One of Us Should Fall," a gorgeous, Beatles-influenced ballad, the first of several Beatles references on the album. This is when the lushness of the production begins to emerge. This is also where we begin to see the maturity of the band's songwriting - the song builds slowly, with an unfolding series of chord changes that rises to the bridge, before returning to Earth for the verse. In a way the song anticipates the next, "Airplane/Primitive," one of the two anchors of the album, (the other being "Paper Birds.") "Airplane/Primitive" represents the culmination of many years of music - it a triumphant statement about the future, hopeful, yet ominous - in sum, altogether sublime. This is a song about death. The rhetorical question in this song is presented in the lyric, "I can't live knowing that there is some other world." It's something of a tautology - if you can't live knowing there is some other world, how will you be able to get there? Then the answer: "Come with me on one last run. Then I swear I'll join you in the sun."


"Suffocation Keep" showcases perhaps the most stunning guest performance on the album - a jaw-dropping cello performance by Gabrielle Athayde, the former Orinda, California child prodigy who was the principal cellist for the highly acclaimed San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra (SFSYO). Note the backup vocals by Nellie Fleischner and the banjo. This gem is the latest in a long line of lullaby-like Slip ballads too numerous to mention, but "Six Sided" comes to mind. Simply outstanding. With the "Soft Machine," a nod to the pioneering British band named after the book by William S. Burroughs, the band continues to move toward UK psychedelia. The song is meant to played loud - fantastic production values and guitar layering, great chord changes, spot-on rhythm section, and almost uncanny use of dynamics. Here note the emergence of the old-school style drum machine. This song, which plays around with the "emo" concept, sees the band beginning to move in the direction of British rock bands like Joy Division, Radiohead, and Coldplay. Note the presence of the familiar seventh chord, one of the band's favorite ways to spice up a three-chord rock chorus. Again, the guitar production is outstanding. "Life in Disguise" is further evidence of the growing influence of British rock, eg. The Beatles and Led Zeppelin on The Slip. This song like what Oasis might have sounded like, if they didn't suck. Outstanding. "Mothwing Bite" is the obvious single, a radio-ready pop tune that puts to shame the entire landscape of insulting pop mediocrity currently polluting the ears of impressionable kids everywhere. "The Original Blue Air" is a fun exercise.


"Paper Birds," the album's finale, is a masterpiece fully realized, and one of the best songs The Slip has ever produced. Utilizing the full scope of the band's ability, coupled with, yet again, superb production, this song requires several listens. I have now seen this song performed live twice, and I can tell you that the effect is almost nuclear - the crowd response to this song is a near riot. The first portion is a classic Slip ballad - lush, languid, yet highly anticipatory. The line about knowing the song before it "leaves my lips," reminds me of that old, oft-ignored (including here) quote: "The wise man thinks long and hard before speaking - and then remains silent."



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