Cover photo: The String Cheese Incident on Facebook
If you like jam bands, you know The String Cheese Incident. If you don’t; well, you’re about to learn. The Colorado-based sextet formed in 1993 but did not release a studio album until 1996 when they independently released Born on the Wrong Planet. Less than a year after that, they created a 72-minute, 10-song, live album, titled A String Cheese Incident, that cemented their upward trajectory.
Over the next 20 years, The String Cheese Incident would continue making solid records and building an adoring fan base that has lead the band to become a staple at many of the world’s biggest festivals, including a perennial headlining slot at Florida’s Halloween bash, Hulaween. Now, in 2017, the Colorado natives have brought us a splendid, nine-song album, Believe, which was released two weeks ago on April 14. After taking the time to become truly comfortable with the album, I can say that this is not a reactionary review. Early reviews often only speak to what is most immediately enjoyable about an album, but as Fall Out Boy once said, “The songs you grow to like never stick at first.” Having given the album time to breathe and grow on me, I can confidently say that this album is plenty sticky.
Believe starts with an eponymous track and a bang. Drummer Michael Travis begins the album with an intense drum fill that leads into a funky groove. Guitars, keyboards, and backing vocals gracefully slide into place and introduce the first song. This high-intensity, funk-fest transitions cleanly into the second track, “Sweet Spot,” which continues the funk feeling but with a splash of southern rock. Keyboard and organ features by the immensely talented Kyle Hollingsworth add a gospel flair to this complex piece. The bridge of this song remind us of the band’s bluegrass roots and foreshadow the continued forays into bluegrass style.
“My One and Only” is firmly planted in the country-bluegrass tradition. Acoustic guitar drives this song, set in 6/8, which showcases 2006 addition to the band, Jason Hann, on auxiliary percussion. The addition of mandolin, played by Michael Kang, and bass (Keith Moseley), leads the song into an up-tempo ending section that puts SCI’s famed live jams in the forefront of the listener’s mind.
The next two songs, “Down a River” and “Get Tight,” seem meant to be grouped together. The fourth and fifth songs on the album display a bluesy soul that has yet to be fully explored on this album. “Down a River” merges the traditional bluegrass sounds and structure with soulful and bluesy instrumental sections and tones. The title, although derived from the lyrics, “What I like / is goin’ down a river / where I can take my time / never know just what I’ll find,” is an apt description of the way that SCI make this song feel like a trip down a river.
“Get Tight” is a much more upbeat iteration of the previously stated musical and lyrical themes. Rather, though, than taking things as they come floating down the river, the lyrics here indicate a more active approach to being close to the people that you love.
It is here, roughly half way through the album, that the album sees a directional shift. Where the first five songs seem to mesh together as a song-cycle, tracks six through nine are a place where the members explore different influences and styles. This section starts with the disco-infused, '80s throwback “Stop Drop Roll.”
As you can tell from the title, this song is literally lit. “Stop Drop Roll” will turn your music player into a fire hazard. So for the next 4:53, handle with extreme caution. SCI beckon their listeners to “(Stay) up all night” in this catchy chorus, and gives them the perfect song to dance to while they’re doing it. This earworm will be stuck in your head for days on end.
“Flying” begins with strings and light cymbal work that are eerily reminiscent of the beginning of “November Rain.” It might sound weird at first, but the whole song reminds me of “November Rain” and similar power ballads. On second thought, maybe “Flying” and “Stop Drop Roll” could go together as an “'80s” themed sub-section of the album, but I digress. Slowly building up through increasingly powerful verses, a breathtakingly emotional guitar solo leads into an outro that brings me chills.
The penultimate track, “So Much Fun” is just that. This song feels like a good day. With a tight rhythm section and driving guitar, SCI keeps heads nodding and booties shaking as they prepare to bring the record to a close. The final track, “Beautiful” starts the same way as the first, with an intense drum fill. From here, we get a funky, 311-esque “space rock” sound. Extensive use of electronica-influenced styles and tones makes this a strong closing track. Complete with uplifting and positive lyrics, every listener should finish this album feeling great and hungry for more String Cheese.
This album, from start to finish, is “So Much Fun.” From the well-connected opening section to the wide-open and genre-bending second half, you’d be hard-pressed to find a song that doesn’t impress. Every member gets to showcase their individual, instrumental prowess as each song transitions from catchy choruses to brilliant bridges that bring an entirely fresh feel to the composition.
When this album first came out, I was in love with it immediately. It snagged my attention with the opening drum fill and captivated me for 42 minutes that flew by like a great weekend with your best friends. After just two weeks, I’m ready to declare it an instant classic. Listening to the album after a forced 10-day hiatus brought me feelings of nostalgia as if it were my father’s favorite album from when I was young despite being less than a month old. Believe altogether feels like the best day you’ve ever had. The sun is shining on your face, your mom is making your favorite meal, and you just discovered your new favorite album. That album is String Cheese Incident’s 2017 album, Believe.
See The String Cheese Incident play songs from Believe, as well as other favorites from the past 20 years, on their current tour!
Click HERE for tour dates and ticket information.