The Indianapolis-based label Owl Studios has staked itself out as both a jazz and jam label. Garaj Mahal, whose second album on the label, More Mr. Nice Guy, appeared earlier this spring, falls somewhere in between those two genres.
A full complement of instruments made by Moog? Check, including the Moog guitar, on which Garaj Mahal guitarist Fareed Haque has also recorded a promotional CD for Moog Inc.
Crazily oscillating synthesizers? Check, although the talented and versatile keyboardist Eric Levy performs on what sounds like an acoustic piano on several songs.
Vocals that fall flat? Check, unfortunately. New drummer Sean Rickman (aka the Rick) takes lead vocals on a couple songs, the lyrics to which don't come close to matching the sophistication of the band's instrumental work.
But even Rickman's numbers are executed with a musical intelligence characteristic much of the jazz world and the best of the jam band scene.
Highlights on the album include "Frankly Frankie Ford," on which the band sounds a bit like the art music trio Time for Three, in taking raw elements from American music (a banjo is prominent on the track) and transforming them into something more obviously virtuosic. "The Long Form" sees the band in a little heavier mode, Haque breaking out the processors, the Rick attacking his fills. And "Tachyonics" has a relaxed soul-jazz flavor, with keyboards and guitars moving from an almost polyphonic setting to settle down on a single line.
A mostly irrelevant note: a minute or two into "What My Friends Say," one of those vocal numbers by the Rick, a synthesizer that sounds exactly like a dental drill whirrs up in the background, and then proceeds to plague the song until the end. I realize this is all about the association I'm bringing to the music — some people have never had cavities, after all — but that drill made for several minutes of excruciating listening.
"Today" from More Mr. Nice Guy (via Owl):