Great taste, less filler

The steady rise in popularity of jam-based music has generated an overabundance of earthy-crunchy, groovy, Dead-esque and Phishy bands, especially on the East Coast.

In fact, the genre — defined by long improvisational segues, psychedelic subject matter, up-tempo vibes and grassroots aesthetics — has generated more successful, unsigned bands in a mere decade than any other type of independent music.

Why? Well, for one thing, jam-rock aficionados are big Internet users, and they’ve plumbed this resource more than any other fan group to promote their favorite bands. But also — the truth must be told — most jam-band fans are somewhat less finicky than, say, fans of punk or alt-country. And that’s because most jam-bands are all but interchangeable — composed of one part Grateful Dead and one part Phish, the rest a mix of ’60s hookah rock with a few tech-age special effects thrown in to impress.

So is it possible for any one jam-band to break away from the swelling vegetable morass that is the East Coast granola-rock scene? Actually, three new groups have recently reared their heads above the spinning masses, joining forces to form the currently touring ensemble Fatty Melt .01 (which provides “nutritious grilled sonic soulfood,” if you believe the advance press).

These bands are a little more eccentric, a bit more unpredictable than the average jammers. They share an attraction to quirky, pop-ish songwriting, an instinct for modern-rock mood, and just enough improvisational skills to satisfy the Deadheads in the audience.

Nevertheless, you can actually tell them apart.

The Ominous Seapods are a five-piece outfit hailing from Albany, N.Y. A guitar-heavy, thick-riffed group, the band lays out warm Hammond B-3 over bear-trap-tight drumming and sturdy bass lines. Think a jammier Black Crowes. Though they initially received mass attention due to their weird name and long, noodling instrumental breaks, the Seapods have finally come into their own with the release of The Superman Curse (Rykodisc, 2000), produced by the Grammy-nominated Glenn Rosenstein (Ziggy Marley, Jars of Clay, Michelle Shocked). Refreshingly dynamic and possessed of an enduring energy throughout, this album is unquestionably the band’s best effort to date.

“Our band is so tight that we decided to record our new album live,” brags guitarist David Monteith. “We wanted it to sound like five guys sitting in a room playing.” Highlights from the release include “For Now,” which boasts a nice, tension-building hook, and “Good to be Alive (For a Change),” which contains a classic-rock-style coda, catchy wah-wah guitar and Godshaw-like vocals from back-up singer Kathy Harrison.

“Imaginary Money” is the best take yet on authentic country phrases pasted inside a rock song by a Yankee jam-band; the tune also offers a witty spiel on life in the music biz. The guys even give us their idea of post-glam rock in “Money to Burn,” which showcases that rich-toned B-3 and hair-band vocals. “What I Saw,” meanwhile, is a pleasing, Zeppelin-tinged acoustic ditty featuring well-executed slide guitar and making clever use of a Mellotron. Many of the tunes make references to subculture issues, such as the sophomoric “Bong Hits and Porn.” The album’s best song is the jazzy “Thought About It,” in which members slow down, for a change, and really articulate musical and vocal phrasing.

“We approach music with more of an American vibe,” says guitarist Todd Pasternack. “We totally don’t listen to jam bands. It makes us concentrate more on songwriting than jams.” Though Superman is an inspired and well-done CD, none of the lead vocal work has breakout vibrancy, and the record’s hyperactive feel might make some listeners jittery.

Enter the Fuzzy Sprouts, whose musicianship and songwriting prowess rise high above the “let’s-buy-instruments-and-form-a-band” ethic of the average Athens, Ga., musical group. Members hail from Amherst, Mass. and Nome, Alaska — and in their adopted college town, they’re often responsible for disco skate-ins and solar-powered rock concerts. (The band’s ability to cover virtually every known rock song has also led to mad Halloween karaoke shows and live covers of entire Beatles and David Bowie albums.)

Liquid Light (Elixir, 1999), the Fuzzy Sprouts’ debut full-length album, is a textbook of rock, soul and funk lines, hybrid riffs and quirky changeovers. Pop-ish hooks and amusing lyrics are well blended with fresh change-ups and impressive fills. The three musicians employ a unique vocal harmony, with Tim Conley mostly singing lead, Seth Hendershot chiming in with Prince-like falsettos and Dave Domizi providing rich back-up and an occasional lead. Conley is also a formidable guitarist, showing equal skill executing lightning-fast riffs (on “Get Up”) and syncopated funk lines (on “Flyin'”). Drummer Hendershot brings balanced fervor to jazz, rock, calypso, fusion and jungle rhythms and Domizi provides a pumping, gutsy bass.

“I’m very passionate, in a not-at-all serious way, about what we do,” says Conley. “We love to play fresh and exciting music, taking a chance with every song at every show, making things up on the fly and letting it get silly.” The album was produced by the Sprouts and Otho Wilburn, who also engineered and recorded it on the Rolling Stones’ mobile recording unit (he owned the disconnected parts of that famous road machine). Ear-friendly, Floyd-like textural changes keep the album uniformly fresh, and a full horn section, harmonicas and even bagpipes lend their perks. Think pre-Backwater Meat Puppets or pre-Amsterdam Ween.

Agents of Good Roots — from Charlottesville, Va. — might be the Fatty Melt band with the best bid for mainstream success. Andrew Winn’s sometimes husky, sometimes sultry baritone will surely prove palatable to MTV audiences, but it also evinces a beatnik bent capable of pulling off pseudo-scat passages with decidedly sexual overtones. Winn, another heavy guitarist, also shows excellent chops on piano, organ and Wurlitzer harmonium. Brian Jones (drums) and Stewart Myers (bass, organs and various keyboards) provide supportive harmony vocals in uncanny synchronicity with the lead man. What brings the quintet’s diverse sound up to national speed, however, is the sensuous, virtuosic work of J.C. Kuhl on tenor saxophone.

“Right now, we are in a period which is indicative of our past experiences,” says Jones. The band’s latest album, Needle and Thread (ATO Records, 2000), is a natural progression from its debut Where’d You Get That Vibe? (Bama Rags Records, 1996) and the subsequent Straightaround (Bama Rags, 1997). Jones describes the Vibe-era Agents as “in constant motion, musically and physically … we were hungry and raw,” and Straightaround as “raw as hell, moody and dark — it took a lot of chances.”

The new product offers alternative-rock ear-candy in the form of the psychedelic “I Gotta Move” and the mood-swinging “Jakob.” Steely Dan-like rock/fusion is featured on “Meet Me on Mainstreet” and “Shot Down.” The Spanish-guitar-tinged “The Blinds” offers college rock with haunting sax lines, while the closer “Beautiful Genius” is a foray into the realm of dripping-wet, post-modern uber-rock.

With these three bands playing together on one night, no open-minded lover of modern rock could possibly leave the show disappointed. The Fatty Melt tour is sure to create great vibes for champions of the East Coast jam-rock scene — and maybe even give skeptics something new to chew on.

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