|music: review: august 10, 2000|
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
produced by Bela Fleck
Released: July 25, 2000
With a Greatest Hits compilation (Greatest Hits of the Twentieth Century) completing his contract with Warner Brothers, Bela Fleck jumped labels to Columbia. In their first outing for their new label, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones deliver an ambitious effort with many guests. Unlike their last studio album, 1998's Left of Cool, which explored the range of their quartet format, Outbound features a number of guests, from bassist Edgar Meyer, organist John Medeski and woodwind players Paul McCandless and Paul Hanson to vocalists Shawn Colvin and Jon Anderson (from Yes) to steel drummer Andy Narell, tabla player Sandip Burman and Tuvan throat singer Ondar. All of these guests help the 'tones to field a much larger sound on this album with a far-ranging global influence but still retain the typical Flecktone wackiness, virtuosity, and innovation that have characterized the group. Outbound is not an astoundingly spectacular album, but it does not disappoint. The more I've listened to this album, the more I've appreciated and enjoyed it.
After a brief saxophone intro, the group lanches into their arrangment of Aaron Copland's "Hoedown," from the ballet suite Rodeo. (It's the song that's best -known now for being in the "Beef, it's what's for dinner" commercials.) The only way that I can characterize this is to say that it embodies that typical Flecktone wackiness and rolls along in outrageous fashion. What other ensemble would take on a popular twentieth century American classical work with electric banjo, saxophone, bassoon played through an electronic harmonizer, pennywhistle and tabla? The woodwind counterpoint towards the end is frenetic and surreal, but somehow not at all out of place.
While Hoedown is a highlight, Moment so Close is a tune that tops it in outrageousness. I've heard them play this song as an instrumental and was surprised to hear the vocals on this the first time. While I think that the lyrics suffer from the same weakness that all of the Flecktones songs with lyrics have, they are less notable here because of the scope of the song as well as the vocal performances that Shawn Colvin, Jon Anderson and even (gasp) Futureman (singing as Royel) turn in. This song has so much going on in it, from Tuvan throat singing from Ondar to a string quartet, yet it has enough contrasts and quality to keep it from being overbearing. This one song demonstrates the range and evolution the Flecktones, as there isn't a banjo anywhere in sight (Bela plays the paradis "swiss-cheese" guitar on it.)
In fact, a moment so close comprises half of the album tracks that have lyrics (Shawn Colvin does contribute some lyric-less vocals on something she said and [something else].) Unlike on Left of Cool where some of the songs with lyrics were weak, both of the ones on Outbound are not. "Aimum" features a wonderfully catchy tune and some of the strongest (or more accurately least weak) lyrics that the Flecktones have used.
Zona Mona, Hall of Mirrors, and Earth Jam run together for me when I'm not listening closely to each. However, all three are very solid and not that similar to each other. Zona Mona has a strong melody. Hall of Mirrors features a turn on a dime meter change that few other groups could pull of as well or easily. Earth Jam is a virtuostic feature, with Vic telling us the secret of why he is such an excellent bass player-- he gets paid by the note-- over a particularly note-intensive solo, and Jeff pulling off his Rahsaan Roland Kirk impression playing two saxophones at once.
"Aimum" features one of the most straightforward songs on the album, with an excellent vocal from Future man (and backup vocals from Shawn Colvin and Jon Anderson) that has decent lyrics. Unlike me, astute observers will notice that "Aimum" is simply "Mumia" reversed. The political statement here is not overt, as it seems more in line with the humanism, respect, and racial integration (the 'tones are from the south and do have two african-american and two white members) that Vic in particular has supported through his music so far. (Justice, on Live Art, for example.) John Medeski contributes a great hammond organ solo.
The title track, "Outbound," is one of my favorites, with a strong tune and great playing. In particular, Jeff's sax solo is short but sweet. "Shuba Yatra" feels like a less-successful reprise of "shanti" from Left of Cool, primarily because of Fleck's use of the sitar banjo. "That Old Thing" has a fun, early big band vibe to close off the album in a fun way.
In a celebration of corporate nepotism, Columbia is encouraging fans to buy Outbound at Borders, because only Borders has an exclusive version which has Jeff's "Two Horny Blues" on a second disc. I can see why this song is not on the album proper, because the song itself is not particularly strong, but it is entertaining, and Coffin's simultaneous use of tenor and alto saxes is fun and showy. Plus, John Medeski has a great Hammond organ solo on the track. I'd suggest buying the Borders edition to get this track, but I don't think it's a deal-breaker that should keep you from buying it from somewhere more convenient.
Outbound is a solid album that does not disappoint. I feel it is missing something slight and intangible from tipping the balance to outstanding, but still recommend a purchase of it soon.