Bela Fleck and the Flecktones – Rocket Science album review

Non-fans of the banjo are legion, and reluctantly I count myself among them.  I think of the banjo as something like balsamic vinegar: it’s excellent in small doses but if you drink a pint glass of it you’ll probably become ill.  I feel the same about the harmonica, especially that excessively smooth harmonica sound Toots Theilmans made so popular in the theme to Midnight Cowboy.  That’s the harmonica tone Howard Levy delivers in Rocket Science.  You can even make out the first strains of “Midnight Cowboy Theme” in the track “Falani” on this album.

 That being said, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with what Rocket Science does.  There are some good tracks, especially “The Secret Drawer,” in which drummer Roy “Futureman” Wooten gets the chance to shine, and the banjo and harmonica take a hiatus.  “Like Water” is another good one.  It borrows its melody from Irish jigs, and gets away from the frenetic arpeggios the banjo so often lends itself to.  I could easily see Rocket Science providing the background music at a Red Lobster or Outback Steakhouse, although played too loud I might become agitated and demand my steak be delivered as I had ordered it, and with ear plugs and a slug of rum to boot. 

 Bassist Victor Wooten, Roy Wooten’s brother, does a good job filling out the quartet.  The band’s present configuration is relatively new, since Howard Levy, who also plays piano on Rocket Science, hasn’t been in the group since 1992 when he was replaced by saxophonist Jeff Coffin.   In 2008 Coffin accepted an invitation to join the Dave Matthews Band and Levy rejoined. 

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones have been around for a long time, and if you’re not a banjo fan there’s a good chance listening to the unique things Fleck does with the instrument will convert you.  He incorporates African, classical and even European folk music into his compositions, and this inventiveness has garnered the band five Grammy Awards.   Checkout www.flecktones.com for dates and locations of their current North American tour.

Sloan – The Double Cross album review

Sloan releases 20th anniversary album The Double Cross

Fans of Canadian rock band Sloan will surely not be disappointed with the band’s latest album, a celebration of their 20th anniversary of their first show. Recently switching record labels from Murderecords to Outside Music, Sloan has continued to put out the same high-quality music that their fans expect of them. The Double Cross, Sloan’s tenth album, continues in the tradition of the band’s extensive discography.

Though The Double Cross is Sloan’s shortest album to date, clocking in at under 35 minutes, the album feels well thought out. The songs are brief, but always sound polished. The rambunctious energy of The Double Cross might have even been a little too much with a longer duration.

While generally upbeat, one of the highlights of the album is a slower song, “Green Gardens, Cold Montreal.” On this track, the listener is allowed a peek into a darker side of the band, where “friends blow away like a cloud.”

Quirky lyrics like those about a girl “who wears sunscreen in the middle of winter to remind herself of summers that were kind” are one of the most enjoyable aspects of the album, and give the listener something to think about.

The rest of the album is raucous and energetic, but its slick production keeps the album from sounding messy. The band’s harmonies offer a touch of sweetness, and the percussion (perfect for fans to air-drum along to) drives the album on.

The Double Cross is certainly an album for the fans, not the critics. Sloan hasn’t shown much growth with this album, although fans probably won’t care very much. The catchy tunes on The Double Cross will likely please long time fans of the band, and it’s easy to imagine fans singing along to them, never missing a single beat, at Sloan’s next show.