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TRACK LIST: 1. Sideira 3:56 2. On the Other Hand 4:47 3. Gain 3:14 4. Half & Half 4:09 5. Back in Black 3:17 6. Dustbowl Politics 4:17 7. 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover 5:02 8. Hail to the King 4:07 9. The Ocho 4:06 10. And the Results Are In 3:19 LINEUP: John Austin – 6-string electric bass James Carr – el. & ac. guitars, gtr-synth Mike Curtis – drums, percussion
Prolusion. JAM-LAB is a guitar-based trio hailing from the towns of Kalamazoo and Three Rivers in Michigan, USA. The members of the band have had extensive experience as live performers in the past 15 years. As well as their own original music, Jam-Lab play interpretations of songs by other artists (such as Bela Fleck, Victor Wooten, John Scofield and Sting). “Gain”, released in 2008, is their debut album.
Analysis. Though instrumental, guitar-based albums can be said to have a limited appeal, “Gain” is undoubtedly a rewarding listen – especially since it concentrates on producing music that is actually listenable, not just meant to impress for its technical brilliance. As is the case of other guitar-based recordings that have come to my attention, “Gain” has a strong jazz-fusion foundation, infused with various ethnic (particularly Latin) influences, and echoes of blues, country, funk, and even reggae. If compared with most conventional progressive rock compositions, the tracks featured on “Gain” feel somewhat unstructured, reminding the listener of the word ‘jam’ appearing in the band’s name. This loose, airy feel can be seen as a definite advantage by those who like their music to convey a sense of freedom from the constraints of too tight a structure, though others might find it somewhat directionless. However, the tracks never sound as they have been pieced together out of disparate solo spots – the music flows naturally, at times even beautifully, and listening is never tiresome. Generally speaking, the tracks have a nicely upbeat feel, and a good sense of melody and balance. The instruments are all clearly audible in the mix, and, even if James Carr’s guitars take centre stage as can be expected, equal footing is given to the very tight rhythm section of John Austin and Mike Curtis. The latter’s drumming is particularly effective throughout the album, as clearly shown right from the opening track, the reggae-tinged Sideira. Since the overall quality of the compositions is quite high, it is not easy to pick out standout tracks. The average length is between 3 and 5 minutes, with the album clocking in at slightly under 40 minutes – as I have often pointed out, almost the perfect running time for an instrumental recording. If I were to choose a personal favourite, I would go for The Ocho, a melodic yet complex offering with plenty of time changes, veering from a muted, sparse beginning to a rockier central section with a jagged rhythm pattern, then culminating in a slow, melancholy guitar solo. Hail to the King follows a somewhat similar pattern, the guitar tone shifting from gritty to mellow, underpinned by some remarkably dramatic drumming. The title track, on the other hand, is almost a textbook example of jazz-rock, an exhilarating slice of music where the guitar works in perfect synch with the drums – which, in turn, carry the song’s stop-start structure. Being specialised in covering other artists’ work (albeit in a very personal way), it is not surprising that Jam-Lab have included two covers on their debut album – two vastly different songs, interpreted in equally different ways. While AC/DC’s Back in Black is nearly unrecognisable (with the exception of the song’s chorus, which anyway is so fleeting as to be bound to be missed by anyone not listening carefully), Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover sounds remarkably close to the original (which is also musically closer to Jam-Lab’s style than AC/DC). James Carr’s guitar sound is expressive and neatly flowing, bolstered by John Austin’s deft, precise bass lines and Mike Curtis’ consistently brilliant drumming. Jam-Lab are obviously seasoned musicians who are not afraid to show their chops, though they do so without showing off, always remembering that music is meant to be enjoyed, not dissected under a microscope in search of the most minute technical detail. “Gain” may be nothing wildly innovative, of course, but it is nonetheless a well-crafted album that puts the stress on tasteful, restrained musicianship – unlike the plethora of ‘shredder’ albums that seem to be mass-produced these days.
Conclusion. More than a straightforward progressive rock offering, “Gain” is an album that follows in the footsteps of artists such as Ry Cooder, JJ Cale, Bela Fleck, or even Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits. Therefore, it will very much appeal to fans of such musicians, as well as those of jam bands like Phish or Umphrey’s McGee. Even lovers of traditional prog, however, will find much to admire, especially as regards technical proficiency – though the structure of the individual tracks is not always as disciplined as one might wish.
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