Who sired the modern jam band? The stock answer is the Grateful Dead, but several among the modern crop of jam-seekers are clearly products of the disco era. No one wants to admit this; disco is generally frowned upon as a musical Dark Age. What some of the smarter jams bands have done in response—God Street Wine comes to mind, and now Animal Liberation Orchestra—is to borrow what people liked most about disco (the inherent danceability) while wiping out its biggest fault: predictability.
Because Animal Liberation Orchestra hails from the Bay area, the band is ripe for Dead comparisons, but apart from the fact that both bands sometimes take extended solos, the analogy doesn’t hold much water. Imagine a Jamiroquai that jams and you’re getting warmer. Animal Liberation Orchestra—ALO for short—is the result of the funk bass of Steve Adams, the hi-hat laden beat that never quite settles of drummer Dave Brogan, the scraping, nimble guitar somersaults of Dan Lebowitz and the ambient, timely keys and vocals of Zach Gill. Combine with vocal harmonies contributed by all four members and the ALO sound comes to a boil.
Keys are ALO’s lead instrument, judging from the band’s new album Time Expander, and their tones range from the subtly pacifying to the aggressively funky, calling to mind Bernie Worrell’s stint with Talking Heads. But Lebowitz’ guitar does occasionally move to the front of the class, as on the laid-back raunch-funk of “Sexo y Drogas,” in which an ever-so-catchy lick hovers somewhere between the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” without ever falling too heavily on either one. Like the best musicians, Lebowitz is a talented thief. The band’s title song, “Animal Liberation,” offers a slow, steady build in the disco tradition before detouring into a gospel organ breakdown prior to the final chorus: “Everybody in the world today’s got an animal they need to liberate.” What more can you ask for from a jam band, honestly? A lovey-dovey, feel-good vibe, incredible musicianship and a beat to keep you dancing—it’s all here.
What separates bands like ALO from the jam pack is attention to songcraft. All too often, jam bands will hit you with a catchy verse and chorus and then come up with some “out there” parts to fill in the midsection. With ALO—again, judging solely by a six-track EP—nothing is forced. It’s fair to say ALO has managed to create jam songs that are as structurally flawless as most Top 40 hits. That’s not to say they’re as predictable—just that there’s an economy here that shows truly mature restraint on the part of the musicians. It’s the difference between rockers sitting down to compose sheet music and four dudes getting stoned and noodling around until something cool happens. Both can produce the desired result, but the former has a sense of purpose. Who can say whether ALO sets its collective mind to airtight composition, but what’s important is that it sounds as if they have. Any album that packs in several songs of over seven minutes without drawing attention to that fact is doing something right, and that’s what ALO has accomplished.
If there is a weakness in ALO’s sound, it lies in the lyrics, which are not terribly original—with the exception of “Valentine’s Day,” in which Gill rails against the corporatization of traditional holidays. But even if the lyrics aren’t going to win any poetry contests, they do jive with the moods of specific songs. Lyrically, “Sexo y Drogas” has the ring of the soundtrack to a hedonistic orgy, “The Womb” is a warm, chubby bubble of snug-fitting reggae vocals and “Animal Liberation” is strong and uplifting. Not every band can be Pink Floyd, but with outstanding mastery of its instruments and lyrics stylistically in synch with the music, ALO has come as close as can reasonably be expected to perfecting the jam-band equation.
This band has a mission statement: “To Create Rapture Through Music.” Maybe disco never actually died; it just needed a serious makeover. .