The String Cheese Incident

Untying the Not (Sci Fidelity Records)

Concept albums can be a dicey proposition for a young group. But once an act has established itself as a top-of-the-heap bluegrass-influenced jam band and has already released a few true-to-its-roots platters -- not to mention live shows that draw a gaggle of free-spirited, granola-munching souls -- well, what the hey.

And so the Cheese has concocted a work that seeks to break from the band's established buoyant sound -- which could be described as Telluride-meets-the-magic-mushroom-man -- and create something less predictable and a little darker. Indeed, the obsession with ringing mandolins and acoustic homages to newgrass have given way, somewhat refreshingly, to more produced electric/technology-enhanced music. For this newfangled effort, the SCI lads teamed with an unlikely partner, producer Youth (whose production credits include the Orb, the Verve, Crowded House and even the London Philharmonic Orchestra).

With the help of vocal-effects wizardry, the disc kicks off on an ethereal and haunting note. "Wake Up," a song written in the late '80s by guitarist Bill Nershi, concerns being woken up at 5 a.m. by a former roommate having an intense, life-questioning phone conversation with his dear old mum. The tune, which touches on the unsettling uncertainties of existence often experienced acutely at a young age, sets the stage for the rest of the album and might make you wonder if it's really the String Cheese Incident you're listening to. Okay, the instruments are still acoustic, such as the lap steel guitar on "Orion's Belt," but the end effect -- after looping and layering -- recalls Pink Floyd more than Bill Monroe.

For fans of the rootsy fare that put these boys on the jam map, there's "Lonesome Road Blues" (Yes, this is still the String Cheese Incident), but even this sip from the traditional well sounds like it's being delivered through an air compressor. The disc might make you want to use words like "hypnotic," "kaleidoscopic," "mazes," "meditative" or even "cinematic." While potentially a pretentious gesture, Untying the Not should win some kudos for effort, if not for actual musical quality.

 
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