by: Widespread Panic

Politics aside -- this is the first-ever Widespread Panic record that hasn't had numerous versions of tracks available on the Internet; the band kept it under wraps until release time -- this is the most ambitious and refined album the band has ever issued. Widespread Panic is the only band from the whole jam scene that emerged from the south and the oft-spouted Allman Brothers' font of inspiration who remains interesting. Over the course of eight studio albums and three live outings, Widespread Panic has mutated into a unit who can make harmonic -- and even hooky -- sense of virtually any scrap of a musical idea. Ball is a refinement of the ambition of Don't Tell the Band. While that record featured exercises in everything from blues to Latin and fusion, Ball centers itself on solid rock & roll of varying textures and approaches. What it means is that for the first time since their self-titled second album, the band has hunkered down and practiced the craft of tight, well-scripted, rock-conscious songwriting. What's more, with the aid of producer John Keane, they execute the fruits of their labor with aplomb, grace, and elegance. There's the pastoral backyard view into the world of "Counting Train Cars" with whining, shimmering pedal steel and a high, lonesome harmonica, with frontman John Bell offering the lyrics as if he's in the middle of them, not projecting them. This is the kind of song the Counting Crows wish they could write, and that R.E.M. tried -- and failed -- to do for literally decades. Think of the Band if they were really from the south and had Dickey Betts and Sneaky Pete Kleinow. In addition, there's the bluesy, southern-fried rock of "Papa Johnny Road," with slithering guitars and a funky bassline accented by popping, single-string fills from a clawhammer banjo; here one can hear a trace of the Allmans, especially in Bell's delivery and the behind-the-beat twinned guitars. Elsewhere, the Richard Thompson-influenced guitar stylings of George McConnell's acoustic create a taut line crossed with Bell's near-British folk-styled vocal; while McConnell can re-create the beautiful octave drones and double-string runs of Thompson, Bell's singing is purely American, though he's going for Nick Drake or even early John Martyn; it's a striking, simple, and beautifully wrought song. There are also knotty, multi-faceted tunes that the Panics are (in)famous for, like the wondrously psychedelic "Meeting of the Waters" or the balls-out rocker "Nebulous," which cuts to the chase with John Herman's organ driving the entire engine. The record closes on a pair of contrasting tunes: the jazzy, almost loungy "Time Waits," haunted by Herman's B3 floating through the guitars and rhythms, and the near-anthemic stoner road song "Travelin' Man." No, we're not talking about a cover of the Ricky Nelson song; this is pure hippie-dream theory: "Been feelin' alright, for a coupla days/Either in a fog, or a sunny haze." Ringing, jangling guitars buoy Bell as he states his intention to live without purpose or destination. The killer flatpicking solo by McConnell in the bridge makes Bell's strident electric rhythm guitar seem more open, wide into the panorama that is the emptiness of all dreamers, where everything is connected. It's a very fine, laid-back rocker that carries out Ball on an up-note. Despite the fact that this is Widespread's "tightest" and most glossy record, it doesn't divulge its secrets easily. It needs repeated listenings to take it all in, and once that happens, it becomes an indispensable addition to their catalog. (Hint: Don't yank it out of the CD player right away when that last track ends.)~ Thom Jurek

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