I count In the Wake as the latest entry in my Not What I Expected file. Tea Leaf Green are known in many quarters as a jam band; that in itself is generally enough to lead me to pass a CD over; I’m simply not a fan of the grinning, herbulent noodling endemic to the jam band genre; as I was told many years ago upon my dismissal from a cover band that had of late begun leaning in a jam direction, I’m a “song guy.” Like that’s a bad thing.
As it turns out, Tea Leaf Green are song guys, too. With a sound that folds in influences from The Band, southern rock, Americana, and the smoother sounds of 90s artists such as Bruce Hornsby, Tea Leaf Green keeps the emphasis on songcraft and melody. Synthesizers and churning sonics of the sort you’d find on a Radiohead album sit surprisingly comfortably alongside acoustic guitars, though there’s plenty of electric guitar too.
While In the Wake is a consistently engaging album, the band is at its best when concentrating on that melodicism. When they crank up the riffage – as on “Space Hero Pt. 2” – the results are less distinctive, conjuring unwelcome memories of such sub-luminaties as Spin Doctors. (The song’s treated, mannered vocals don’t help matters.) But that track is the exception; the 70s electric piano and strings vibe of “Penny Saved” is hooky and highly tuneful. Its propulsive bass line and Memphis-flavored horns add up to the album’s strongest track. Its synthesizer solo almost edges into prog-rock territory, but remains safely just inside the pop idiom.
The press kit for the album makes repeated references to unspecified tragedies and losses that the band endured in the run-up to making In the Wake, but there’s a decidedly upbeat, positive musical vibe shot through the entire record. The cellos and violins that guest players provide on the album (most notably on “All Our Love,” another of the record’s strongest cuts) add a dimension of both emotion and stateliness, but never in a pretentious way. The vocals on the album – provided by three of the five players – sound at times like Tim DeLaughter of The Polyphonic Spree; there’s a shaky, warbly quality that veers right on the edge of being disquieting. But that sensitive and organic vocal quality actually works here, in a way not unlike Neil Young‘s work.
Jam band fans will still find plenty to like here; the insistent grooves are key to most of these songs, but the band exhibits admirable restraint in reining in any jam tendencies. “Give Me One More Chance” has a soul groove. “One Condition’s Enough” answers the question: what would Paul Simon sound like if he knew how to rock? “Space Hero Pt.3” mixes gentle acoustic guitar with swooshy, distant electronics, and the result sounds a bit like A Saucerful of Secrets-era Pink Floyd, specifically Roger Waters‘ “Grantchester Meadows.” The first part of “Space Hero Pt. 4” finds the Spin Doctors vibe rearing its head, but the strong melody (and guitar solo) bring it to a storming, jubilant finish. Some electronic percussion and looping (notably on the title track) again reminds of Radiohead, a band with whom one might guess Tea Leaf Green has little in common. “Mr. E and the Cosmic Receptacle” hybridizes electronica and country blues. But these varied stylistic touchstones are all tied together nicely within In the Wake, and the result is a nice balance between variety and cohesion.
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