Like raising a tank full of Sea Monkeys, it's always an interesting journey to watch a band grow from its embryonic beginnings to its artistic peak. But unlike those comic-book ads that promise tiny bike-riding, castle-dwelling fish-people instead of the little cannibalistic shrimp that they really are, Moses Guest delivers mightily.
Self-titled CDs usually herald either a first release, a not-so-subtle artistic shift or a band rebirth. The latter is at play here, and for its nearly two-hour running time, this ambitious, sprawling effort shows how far the band has progressed beyond its early jam/hesher roots.
The double CD kicks off, appropriately enough, with "Saint Mo," a rollicking Little Feat/the Band-like ode to the real Moses Guest, the fifth-generation grandfather of singer/songwriter/ guitarist Graham Guest. The band has clearly embraced a rootsier sound since Geniality of Morality and American Trailer Home Blues, and its rural energy infuses other standout tracks like "Best Side Up" and "Waterville." Not so coincidentally, the sepia-toned cover finds the core band (which also includes keyboardist Rick Thompson, bassist Jeremy Horton and drummer James Edwards) posed on an old-timey Piney Woods cabin porch.
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But Moses Guest is not just jumping on the O Brother bandwagon. "I Do Not Love You" and "U 'n' Mi" are tasty with pop flavors, and "Boogie Heartache" is soulful dance funk. Hell, several "space rock" instrumentals could be commercial lead-ins for the Sci-Fi Channel.
The two best tracks, "Rag Doll" and "Waterville," utilize a lot of vocal harmonies and tempo and time signature shifts (executed with expertise by Edwards and Horton). There's an epic feel to them, and not just for their substantial running time. In fact, Moses Guest's length feels just right. The double-CD format isn't filled up with extended noodling; it simply offers natural breathing room for the songs and the players.
Through it all, Guest's guitar is alternately slashingly sharp and tastefully picked, and his well-suited (albeit somewhat limited) vocals strike just the right timbre and texture for the material, even when some of his lyrics are difficult to decipher (who is Cowboy Man?). But it's Thompson who really shines, as his keyboards snake in and out of the songs like the threading on a quilt. A heap of credit must also go to producer Dan Workman, given the significant leap in this record from the band's previous efforts.
Moses Guest is a significant achievement and a well-deserved success for the band. If there's a downside to the album (especially for Houston audiences), it's that it can really be appreciated only as a record. Much of the instrumentation that makes it special (orchestral instruments, sax, pedal steel and Dobro) isn't part of the normal four-man stage show. But given the facts that Moses Guest has put out its best record to date and hired a hot national indie publicity firm to flog it outside of Houston, can the Moses Guest/Houston Symphony show be far off?