Tool’s ‘Ænima’ at 20

Tool‘s Ænima is turning 20. It was released on vinyl on September 17, 1996 and on CD on October 1, 1996.

tool aenima

Ænima completes my personal holy trinity of top albums that were released in ~1996. It wasn’t the first hard rock/metal album I owned, but it was the one that struck deepest. With it, vocalist Maynard James Keenan, guitarist Adam Jones, drummer Danny Carey, and then-new bassist Justin Chancellor cemented Tool as one of the most formidable bands in rock.  Like Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and Crash, Ænima is a twofold touchstone for me:
1. The album itself is great, and one that I’m just as excited to listen to twenty years later.
2. It served as my entryway into a new musical world.

Because of this album and the near fanatical devotion it inspired in me, Tool was my favorite band throughout high school and much of college. (Tool is still in my Top 5, of course, but at that time the band was without peer.) It spoke to me in various ways. I read an interview with saxophonist Jeff Coffin once in which he said that the most moving music affects you in multiple ways simultaneously: your head, heart, and body. In this respect, Ænima was one of the first album to move me on all three levels. It’s musically interesting on a technical level; the music and message are equal parts profound and humorous; and everything comes together to simply rock and groove hard.

Ænima is multi-faceted, to say the least. The lyrics are wide-ranging — alternately existential, darkly comical, angst-ridden, and mystical. Such a description of the lyrical content could also be applied to the ouvre of comedian Bill Hicks, to whom the album is dedicated. Hicks, a friend of Keenan’s and one of the more biting and cynical satirists of the last few decades, died in 1994, and is described as “another dead hero” in the liner notes. To drive the point home further, beyond Hicksian attitude, the album’s crown jewel and final track “Third Eye” opens with several Hicks clips above a growing psychedelic maelstrom of sound before giving way to the song proper. (Live renditions, though rare, substitute Hicks for a recording of Dr. Timothy Leary.) Also, the album’s title track is a take on a regular Hicks trope: an earthquake causing LA (and the countless superfluous cultural ills it houses) to plunge into the ocean, leaving only “Arizona Bay.” Hence the refrain, “Learn to swim.”

The album’s humor extends beyond Hicks. This is particularly evident in “Message to Harry Manback” (a recording of a violent, expletive-laden voicemail atop soft piano), “Intermission” (a kitschy jazz organ arrangement of “Jimmy”), and “Die Eier von Satan” (aka “The Eggs (Balls) of Satan,” a recipe for hash sugar cookies aggressively recited in German over a screaming, responsorial crowd, reminiscent of Nazi rallies).

The music is heavy overall with sparse, nuanced moments throughout. Keenan’s intense vocal stylings convey urgency at all times, be it a whisper, more brassy full-throated fare, or all-out screaming. It’s a nice sonic counterpoint to the dark, relentless rhythm section. Aside from the occasional guitar solo, the drums, bass, and guitar blend seamlessly into one rhythmelodic juggernaut. And even though “rhythmelodic” is arguably a silly term I’m making up as I write this, the melodies and rhythms are so symbiotically linked that it’s hard to consider one without the other. Structurally, the music is intricately rhythmic — mixed- and odd-meters and hemiolas abound. (Carey’s percussion abilities and training have included tabla study with Aloke Dutta.) Not many rock songs maintain a deep groove when alternating between 6/8 and 5/4 and 16/8 (3+3+3+3+2+2), as in “Third Eye,” but Tool succeeds where others fail. To many, Ænima is Tool’s best album, as it’s a step further in the progressive and psychedelic rock direction from 1993’s Undertow (and 1992’s EP Opiate), but it was more radio-friendly overall than 2001’s Lateralus (the title track of which features a melody built upon the Fibonacci sequence and a chorus in revolving cycles of 9/8, 8/8, and 7/8) and 2006’s 10,000 Days. (Lateralus is this blogger’s favorite of the discography.)

For being such an iconic nineties rock album to many, Ænima has a surprising number of throwaway or secondary tracks. “Useful Idiot,” “Message to Harry Manback,” “Intermission,” “Die Eier von Satan,” “Cesaro Summability,” and “(-) Ions” are all either transitional sound pieces, jokes, or both. (And they work within the context of the album as a whole — one of the reasons it’s best listened to in its entirety.) The remaining nine songs more than make up for any lost ground. They range from four-and-a-half to nearly fourteen minutes in length, with the average being around six to eight minutes. Consequently it’s that much more impressive that the album included four radio singles: “Stinkfist,” “Forty-Six & 2,” “Ænema,” and “H.”

The songs are pretty well balanced between straight-ahead rockers and more exploratory pieces. It’s no mistake that “Stinkfist,” “Forty-Six & 2,” and “Ænema” were hit singles – they’re radio-ready stunners. “Hooker With A Penis” — a comment upon claims that the band had become too popular and sold out — is arguably the heaviest straight-ahead number on the album. Stylistically that’s no accident. How better to comment upon commercial success than pairing the caustic lyrics with a catchy hook? And when “Eulogy” — supposedly an “ode” to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard — kicks in after its two-minute percussive introduction, it’s not hard to picture thousands of fans dancing and moshing to those anthemic choruses.

Then as well as now, I tended to spend most of my time with the more exploratory numbers. These four songs — “H.,” “Jimmy,” “Pushit,” and “Third Eye” — take up most of the album’s real estate given their lengths. “H.” is technically straightforward, but this contemplative medium-tempo dirge is cut from a different cloth than the other singles. In this respect, you could easily pair it with “Jimmy.” “Pushit” and “Third Eye,” however, go farther and deeper both sonically and rhetorically, and they’re the two songs with the most extreme dynamic juxtapositions. At over thirteen-and-a-half minutes, “Third Eye” was unlike anything I’d ever heard the first time I listened to it. Aside from its length, its various peaks and valleys feature noise, instrumental soloing, moving melodies, intricate rhythms, a meaningful message, and more.

(For the record and what it’s worth, though it’s hard to pick, “Pushit,” “Third Eye,” and “H.” are probably my favorites on the album.)

Unlike with MCIS and Crash, I saw the band live around the time they were supporting this album. Even though Tool’s set lists are rather static within each tour, there’s no denying that they’re a great live band, particularly in the sense of flawlessly executing their material. (Though, to be fair, Maynard phoned in his performance at the last show I attended — Toledo, OH in 2012 — but I bet the brief tour was a cash grab for him to support his myriad other endeavors. Adam, Danny, and Justin gave it their all, however.) I first saw Tool on July 26, 1997 as part of Lollapalooza 1997 at Val-du Lakes in West Michigan. It was the first of fourteen shows for me, and I still think of it every July 26 (as well as throughout the year). It was the first real heavy mosh pit (of many) I’d been a part of, and staying near the stage was nothing short of an adventure, even when I moved away from the core melee.

In addition to seeing the band live at the time, I also became a member of the online community. That’s a ubiquitous element to most things now because of social media, but in the mid-to-late nineties it was relegated to message boards on the recently-retired toolshed.down.net. I must take a moment to state for the record just how much I’ve enjoyed toolshed over the years. Director and editor Kabir Akhtar began the site as a labor or love over two decades ago, and it was long the go-to source for band news, discussion of the lyrics’ meanings, fan reviews of shows (a few of which were written by a much younger me), and much more. Tool’s own website now includes actual news when appropriate, something it never did way back when. Though it did feature endlessly engaging tomes on all sorts of goodies… Even though I haven’t posted on toolshed in years, I’ve continued to regularly visit. It’s both a great repository of Tool info and a fascinating pre-Social Media time capsule. I may have mixed feelings about another fan site (to put it mildly) but I have nothing but fondness for toolshed. Thank you, Kabir.

Ænima‘s release and aftermath was game-changing for the band, and likewise for me as a fan of Tool and music — and a participant in fandom — generally. It’s wild to think it’s been twenty years. Hopefully it won’t be that long until the band’s next album

Change of Scenery, Me Time

A job and family needs have taken my family and I to Buffalo, NY. The moving process is far from done. Our house in East Lansing has yet to sell and we don’t yet have a permanent place in the Buffalo area. Things are in flux. Looking back, June through August are little more than a blur, between packing, moving, and teaching in Austria. Given that we’re still partially living out of boxes and suitcases under a roof that isn’t our own, the new routine has yet to really sink in. That said, it’s been nice to cut a lot of commitments and noise from our individual and collective schedules.

I’m certainly mourning the loss of our East Lansing house, home, and community, and I miss being in the same state as many of my friends, though this site isn’t the place to dwell on such things. At the same time, though, I definitely got in a bit of a rut the last 12-18 months. As someone who only recently (in the last year) learned to regularly say “no,” I had built up a cornucopia of commitments that left me almost no time for myself, my own pursuits, or to spend meaningfully with my family. Several of these commitments saw only lateral moves ahead which begged the question: how long can or should I keep _____ up? In several instances I found myself just going through the motions. Doing it just to do it, and often at the sacrifice of much-needed time. Now, in a sense, for many things I’ve just taken myself out of the equation. (I’m sure that in several situations I’m now just a memory, which is fine. Onto the next. Such is the cold crossfire, even with moving.) And though the dust has yet to really settle here in WNY, I’m enjoying the — at the moment — simpler routine. This was my first easy weekend in months, and on two occasions I laid on a couch and read a book. It was neat.

What’s especially nice is enjoyably listening to music again, also something I haven’t done with any regularity in months. I bought quite a haul of albums in Europe in July (thank you Ludwig Beck, once again) and since, most of which I haven’t listened to until this month. This led me to finally listening to the material Matt and I recorded in April for our next album. Until I listened back, I had little specific musical recollection of that date. What a nice and reassuring surprise it’s been to hear those recordings.

The mania of these last few months has kept things quiet on the blog front, though I did manage to provide my $0.02 on Franco Faccio’s Amleto at Bregenzer Festspiele. However, I have some new posts and other items already in the works, and I’m looking forward to getting those out in due time. Of course, the best part is that I should now have more time to actually put them together.

Last weekend I picked up Bob Berg‘s debut album New Birth at Record Theatre, my favorite Buffalo music haunt for years now. I listened to it right away, since I’m now in the mood for new music again. But it didn’t strike me until after I purchased it just how apt the title was.

Franco Faccio’s ‘Amleto’ at Bregenzer Festspiele

Last night’s premiere of Amleto at the Bregenzer Festspiele was a shot of adrenaline to the arm of the indoor opera house, which often lives in the shadow of its sibling on the lake, the festival’s crown jewel. It was my fifth indoors premiere, and, by a long shot, it was the most well-received performance there I’ve witnessed.

bregenz amleto(photo courtesy of Bregenzer Festspiele)

With the festival’s new artistic director Elisabeth Sobotka moving away from her predecessor David Pountney’s habit of commissions and world premieres for the indoor theater with last year’s The Tales of Hoffman by Offenbach, it seems that now a fig leaf has been offered to recent tradition: the European “re-premiere” of a little-known work not performed on the continent since 1871 (or anywhere until the 2014 reconstruction by Anthony Barrese and staging by Albuquerque’s Opera Southwest), Franco Faccio’s Amleto. (Also, interestingly, Sobotka herself is a Faccio specialist.)

While I admit that I wasn’t here for the 2010 premiere of the much-lauded The Passenger (by Weinberg), I’ve otherwise seen the premieres run much of the gamut. In talking to folks both behind the scenes and in the audience over the years, it seems that each year from 2011 to 2014 improved (both the piece and its reception by audience and performers alike), and I’d have to say I largely agree. In order, those were Judith Weir’s Achterbahn (2011), Detlev Glanert’s Solaris (2012), André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice (1982, premiered 2013), and H.K. Gruber’s Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (2014). I’ll avoid giving tangential reviews of each here, but suffice it to say I genuinely enjoyed much of the latter three (and some music of the first, from what I remember). (Despite the questionable handling of race, that is. An unfortunate occurrence in most of them but particularly in Solaris, and – sigh – a modern hallmark of opera anyway…)

With Amleto, Sobotka is bringing 19th-century Italian opera – of the progressive, proto-verismo sort – to a stage once dominated by modern instrumental and vocal techniques and mores. That’s not to say that, as a whole, older works are “less than” (not at all…hello, Wagner). But, despite the inconsistency, I did greatly appreciate and respect the festival’s (Pountney’s?) preference for and willingness to take risks and commission and feature new works each year. In a canon-saturated economy, it seems that new productions of old works are far more important than new works. Knowing that I’d be seeing something genuinely new each year (along with the traditional fare and spectacle on the lake stage) was exciting. (Though, the realities of life do sink in, and the festival was tired of losing money on the premieres.)

All that, however, is not meant to hang a cloud over Faccio and librettist Boito, Barrese, and Sobotka, but rather to simply say that things are different now — not better or worse, just different. Considering last night’s performance in a vacuum, it was definitely a success, and I quite enjoyed it.

You can read all about the history of Amleto and Faccio here. Briefly, Faccio, a leading conductor in Italy (particularly at Milan’s La Scala) was an important figure in the scapigliatura movement. Known mostly as a conductor, he also composed some, including the little-known Amleto, which premiered in Genoa in 1865 and then was quickly shelved and forgotten after a disastrous 1871 La Scala debut. Reconstructing the score from piano reductions over several years, Anthony Barrese then resurrected the work in a 2014 debut by Opera Southwest. (Audio and video recordings featuring strong performances and a moderately traditional production by Opera Southwest are now available.)

Faccio’s score, though nonetheless in the Italian tradition, is forward-thinking and engaging, tending to opt for the dramatic than a melodious hit parade. Boito’s libretto greatly streamlines Shakespeare’s Hamlet for time, and the four acts run shy of 150 minutes (without intermission).

The Bregenz production was led by director Olivier Tambosi and set designer Frank Philipp Schlössmann. Tambosi is a fixture in Europe and the US, and Schlössmann’s work is seemingly everywhere Deutsche Grammophon has advertising lately, as his work for Katharina Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from 2015’s Bayreuth festival can be seen wherever DVDs are sold. The performers and production each stood on their own, but their sum was much greater than their considerable parts. The stark sets and striking use (or absence of) color throughout — with possibly a hint of Tim Burton — helped to propel the narrative. The production team also placed action where there otherwise may not have been any (e.g., overtures and other instrumental passages, underneath an aria, etc.). Two examples stand out. For the opening overture, the orchestra begins after the curtains have already open to display (an unconscious?) Amleto laying on the ground under a lowered light rig. (Is he dreaming? Is he already feeling the psychological pressure of all the lights (eyes?) being on him?) Later, in the overture to Act III, instead of beginning with King Claudius at prayer, we see him awake in his chambers and slowly walk to the chapel, adding weight where the previously was little. Also, much is done with Laertes when he’s not singing. He’s occasionally lurking in the background when Amleto and Ofelia are near one another.

To continue begging the question as to whether we’re watching Amleto in or out of his mind, a seemingly outward-facing curtain is at the back of the stage through Act I. And during Amleto’s first duets with both Ofelia and The Ghost (of his father), he curiously lies down. Is he dreaming or hallucinating?

And nearly everyone who’s not Amleto sports an Illuminati-esque eye on their clothes. Is this to represent their looking at (and putting psychological pressure on) Amleto, or representing to the audience how Amleto sees them? In his incomplete attempt to don a mime’s makeup in Act II, is he looking to become anonymous and erase his identity, becoming just another faceless clown in the court? As he descends further into madness, the makeup then starts to gradually fade in the second half.

One curious musical device that I don’t believe was used — at least so extensively — by Opera Southwest is that of offstage orchestral forces. There seemed to be a separate and permanent offstage brass (and more? hard to tell at times) section that remained throughout the whole of the work. I thought it had to do with the court in the first act, but then it remained. Perhaps this musical schizophrenia is to be reminiscent of Amleto’s gradual dissolution, though I could be reading too far into the lines. (I know it wasn’t a matter of real estate — Gruber’s orchestra for Wiener Wald dwarfed Faccio’s.)

The cast was quite strong overall, with standout performances by Pavel Černoch (Amleto), Iulia Maria Dan (Ofelia), Dshamilja Kaiser (Gertrude), and Claudio Sgura (Claudio). The two truly excellent moments of the evening belonged to the trio of Černoch, Kaiser, and Gianluca Buratto (The Ghost), and Dan’s final aria, both in Act III. That one-two punch set an impossibly high bar for the fourth act. And both in and out of the pit, Paolo Carignani led the Vienna Symphony Orchestra through a dynamic and moving run of the score.

Regardless of how one feels about old works and new, last night’s production and performance was an all-around success. I’ve not seen an audience applaud for a work in the indoor theater here as I did last night (along with one heckle from the balcony for the director…can’t win them all). I’ll be curious to see where not only this production but the work as a whole heads after this. As for the festival, Bregenz is getting its indoor stride, as next year will feature the certainly-not-new Moses in Ägypten by Rossini (alongside Bizet’s Carmen on the lake).

(And as for Pountney, he’s busy getting his Ring cycle off the ground in Chicago, for which Das Rheingold premieres in October. See you there.)

New Listen: Jack DeJohnette’s ‘In Movement’

jack dejohnette in movement

Jack DeJohnette’s In Movement is a powerful addition to an already consequential discography as a bandleader. Among other ventures, the bands and recordings under DeJohnette’s Special Edition moniker are formidable. Unfortunately, this still seems to be a surprise for some, as the drummer, composer, and pianist is often considered “just a sideman.” (Which is laughable — even if he’d never functioned as a bandleader, the fact that he’s played with just about everybody since the 1960s, while remaining one of music’s best drummers at 73, nearly negates the connotation of “sideman.”)

In Movement features:
Jack DeJohnette — drums, piano, electronic percussion
Ravi Coltrane — tenor, soprano, and sopranino saxophones
Matthew Garrison — electric bass, electronics

Much has been made of the historical nature of In Movement‘s lineup. (Coltrane and Garrison’s fathers, John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison, formed half of arguably the greatest quartet in jazz history. Furthermore, DeJohnette sat in with the elder Coltrane in the early 60s, years before joining Miles Davis — also Trane’s former employer — later that decade.) However, don’t be fooled by any sense of nostalgia: the playing and sounds are fresh. It’s an album of today, informed by yesterday, and looking to tomorrow.

One of DeJohnette’s main strengths as a bandleader and composers is his command of orchestration in small ensembles. His Special Edition bands, for example, sound like groups of Mingus-y proportions instead of the quartets and quintets they are. Similarly, In Movement often sounds much bigger than a trio. That’s not to say that it’s busy and cluttered. There’s a lot of space on this record. But, between the three of them, they bring the forces and possible textures of a quintet. Garrison’s electronic work often provides a sonic bed or wash to envelop the group, with DeJohnette’s piano providing a nice acoustic counterpoint to the electric sounds. And it’s worth noting Coltrane’s strong presence, not only on his standard-issue tenor and soprano, but also on sopranino. I believe this album is his recording debut on the instrument, and what a strong one it is. Sopranino is a difficult horn to manage, even (unfortunately) for those who play it regularly, but Coltrane doesn’t falter here. I’ll be honest: when I first read that he played it on this album, I rolled my eyes, and my ears waited for it to stick out like a sore thumb. However, I instead realized partway through “Rashied” that I was hearing masterful sopranino work.

In Movement includes three covers which emphasize the album’s lineage: a weighty, solemn rendition of John Coltrane’s “Alabama” (with the composer’s son on tenor, channeling his father) opens the album; a sparse, soprano- and piano-driven rendition of Miles Davis and Bill Evans’s “Blue in Green”; and a plodding, deeply grooving account of “Serpentine Fire” by Earth, Wind & Fire that sounds wholly different from the original. Other allusions appear elsewhere, with “Rashied” (for drummer Rashied Ali) featuring a fiery sax and drum duet reminiscent of Interstellar Space, and “Two Jimmys” (for Jimmy Garrison and Jimi Hendrix) allowing Garrison plenty of room to paint an abstract sonic canvas rife with effects, distortion, and wandering lines.

It’s better to almost ignore the titles, though, as the other originals blend right in. “Lydia” is a mid-tempo stroll which tastefully blends Coltrane’s melodic soprano playing with DeJohnette’s trademark (at least to me) cymbal work and Garrison’s pocket bass lines and electronic textures. “In Movement” is a fitting title track, capturing not only the highlight talents from “Lydia,” but also exploring quicker, more intertwined lines and grooves. It’s also an apt title — while DeJohnette and Coltrane forge ahead, Garrison both follows on bass and stretches time with his electronic textures. And though “Alabama” served as a somber opening, “Soulful Ballad” is more optimistic, with DeJohnette and Coltrane trading drums and tenor for piano and soprano, respectively.

This is an encouraging sign of where DeJohnette’s bandleader duties may be headed in this stage of his career, particularly on ECM. I’m already waiting for the follow-up.

In Movement was released on May 6 by ECM Records and is available now.

Album links:
Amazon
iTunes

Dave Matthews Band’s ‘Crash’ at 20

Dave Matthews Band’s Crash turned twenty on April 30, 2016.

dmb crash

I don’t have time to mark all such occasions for albums from ~1996 that I hold up as iconic, but I did so for Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and must do so again here. Like that other entry, this won’t be a song-by-song novella, but I’d still like to log some thoughts to mark the occasion.

Depending on how you parse it, Crash is either the second or third album released by the band. I suppose it’s officially seen as the second major label release (after 1994’s Under the Table and Dreaming) and studio album. However, this doesn’t count the band’s self-released debut Remember Two Things from 1993, a mix of live and studio recordings that was eventually given a wider, major label pressing and re-release. Be it second or third, Crash was a juggernaut. “Crash Into Me,” “So Much to Say,” “Too Much,” and “Tripping Billies” dominated the airwaves, and the album is currently 7X platinum. Stats aside, this album is a monumental one for me personally. Regular readers should know by now that DMB is a cornerstone of my musical DNA, and this album was my “patient zero” — my entry point.

Even though “What Would You Say?” and “Ants Marching” had crossed my ears, I distinctly remember the time I first I knowingly heard “So Much to Say,” Crash‘s lead single. To date this then-adolescent, I was watching MTV and taken aback by seeing a saxophonist playing in such a quality, catchy song. I dug it and wanted more. Not long after, I purchased the CD and quickly seared every note and syllable into my brain. I listened to the full album constantly: at home, in the car, on my bike, doing yard work, walking around the neighborhood, etc. And I mean the full album — every last song. Often times I’d put in the CD and just select “repeat all” and let it go. I would of course go through spurts where I listened to some songs repetitively more than others, but in this album’s case every song got a turn. Nothing was glossed over.

Fast favorites for me were “#41,” “Two Step,” and “Let You Down,” but that studio recording of “#41” left a specific still-deep impression for several reasons. The instrumental jam, though short by the band’s live standards, particularly engaged this then-young saxophone student. By 1996, I had fallen down the rock rabbit hole. I made room for other styles, too, but as I wrote here I was under the spell of Smashing Pumpkins et al. That said, I also had a burgeoning interest in the saxophone, and there really no bands that I was aware of that included a fully-integrated saxophonist. I mean, I listened to a ton of oldies growing up. However, as I wrote here, much of the sax’s use then (and to a large extent now) was either a novelty or a cameo. Furthermore, those bands that did regularly use saxophone still preferred to exploit that honky rhythm & blues sound (e.g., Pink Floyd). So, to hear an album by a current band that both included sax and was good (great!) made quite an impression. And not only did it include saxophone, but the instrument was integral to the record’s — and, as I later learned, the band’s — sound, be it in the background, foreground, or just part of the overall texture.

Another thing about “#41” that was important for me at the time was the realization and understanding that some sort of improvising was occurring. At the time (I was 12 going on 13 — cut me some slack), I knew of jazz but wasn’t strongly interested in it, and the idea of full-blown improvising was something I knew happened, but not for extended periods of time in more “mainstream” solos and styles. Also, to focus to Crash, LeRoi Moore‘s brief riff-based solo on “Too Much” remains intact to this day, though it did go away for a few years. I heard the same thing on Letterman as I did on the album. “#41,” though, was another story. The violin and flute solos I liked, but they were short and bounced along with the rhythmic feel from the song proper. Roi’s sax solo, on the other hand…that was a whole different entity for me. In fact, I listened to that solo so much that I almost considered it a different song. Looking back, I think it was the first instrumental solo I committed to memory. I could sing or whistle it at the drop of a hat. Carter’s cymbal crash at 04:27 helps note the shift in feel, and Roi’s off to the races.

(Imagine my delight when, in 2010, Jeff Coffin and Rashawn Ross started playing an interlude horn line that used bits from Roi’s studio solo…)

In fact, I often thought of it as the “Moonlighting solo” to myself, as the rhythm section’s groove reminded me of the Moonlighting theme song. (A song that, when I heard it by the time I was 6, I really liked. Having recently listened back via YouTube, I don’t remain as sold on it, but in my mind there’s a connection. Ha!)

Even though “#41” remained a centerpiece (and to this day my favorite DMB song), it certainly wasn’t the only piece to make an impression. Instrumentally, Roi’s solo on the outro of “Proudest Monkey” was another improvisatory standout. That, and his soprano sax tone sounded magnificent to me. Even now, when I think of soprano tone, that’s one of the first things to come to mind along with Dave Liebman.

That’s enough shop talk, though. Back to the album at large.

Not only was the saxophone’s immersion in the band’s sound a game-changer, but so was the band’s overall sound of being a rock band with no lead guitar. (Well, at least at it’s core. I continue to contest that being the case these days.) Yes, Tim Reynolds is present throughout the album, but he’s felt more than explicitly heard. Instead, I was listening to a band that figured out how to rock with both a violin and saxophone (and flute!). Wild!

Also, Crash covers a fair amount of stylistic ground. The overall atmosphere of the album is cohesive, but the band covers a respectable range that includes rock/pop (“So Much to Say,” “Too Much,” “Tripping Billies”), more jam- and jazz-influenced fare (“#41,” “Say Goodbye,” and “Proudest Monkey”), ballads (“Crash Into Me,” “Let You Down,” “Cry Freedom”), the in-between (“Lie In Our Graves”), and a couple hard-driving selections (“Two Step,” “Drive In Drive Out”).

Most people consider the follow-up, 1998’s Before These Crowded Streets, to be the band’s best album, and it’s a consistent favorite among much of the hardcore fan base. I definitely see where BTCS devotees are coming from (and, in some respects, I agree that it’s DMB’s best): it’s an epic album with superb songs. That said, its grandiosity is something that gets in the way when I’m thinking of what makes an album my favorite when it comes to DMB (or most any band, I suppose). BTCS features Alanis Morissette, Béla Fleck, Kronos Quartet, and many more. It’s a big studio undertaking whereas Crash, still a big studio album, features the core five (plus Tim Reynolds) and, for the most part, features a pretty “live” sound. One drawback I always saw with Under the Table and Dreaming was the production — maybe it was the time and technology, but the album has much less of a “live” presence than Crash.)

At the end of the day, Crash is my personal favorite. Admittedly, it may partially be for nostalgic reasons, as it’s where it all started for me. Even so, it’s the band’s studio album I listen to the most, and it’s the one I keep handy in case I need a fix. For example, I use my iPod Classic when I’m on the move, but I do keep select albums on my iPhone and iPad, and Crash is always the first DMB one to get thrown on there. Its song selection, live sound, and lack of guests (beyond Reynolds) combine to offer a great distillation of a band that’s become a real piece of my life over these last two decades.

And with that, here’s to many more with Crash and the band…