The Conch Fatboy
Music ••••½ Sound •••••
It's been four years since moe.'s last studio album, Wormwood, but the slow-footed approach seems to work well for this band. Built from live tracks recorded in front of audiences at various locations in 2005, The Conch features a clean, sharp production, memorable tunes, and rewarding performances. The title is a reference to the symbol of civilization and democracy in William Golding's Lord of the Flies - whoever holds the conch has the right to speak - and here, moe.'s three principal songwriters share the floor in typical proportions, passing the conch around with messages of fear, weariness, loyalty, and hope.

Belying his onstage dudeness, bassist Rob Derhak tends to be the band's most interesting writer. And on this album, his songs continue to take surprising turns, including the falsetto-infused "Blue Jeans Pizza" (with a dash of Steely Dan?), the funky hip-hop cum melodic dirge of "Down Boy" (a showstopper in concert), and the ultra-mellow "Summer o i" (echoes of pre-Dark Side David Gilmour). Add to that the hellish visions of "The Pit," the forlorn meditation of "Another One Gone," and the morbid creepiness of "Brittle End," and it sounds like Derhak has been exorcising some demons.

As a writer, guitarist Al Schnier has often seemed like the Garcia to Derhak's Weir, contributing simpler song structures that serve as launching pads for stunning improvs. "Lost Along the Way" fits that mold, taking "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" chords through a slow-building instrumental section before ratcheting things up to an exhilarating guitar climax. But Schnier's tunes on this disc also get more elaborate and run the gamut of moods, from the desperately energetic "Tailspin" (with a presidential voiceover that leaves no doubt the song is about Iraq) to the quiet, acoustic instrumental "MacIntyre Range."

Guitarist Chuck Garvey has always been Writer No. 3 in moe., but his contributions can be choice. In particular, "Wind It Up" currently serves as something of an anthem for the band, with its singalong chant of "Be on my side, I'll be on your side." On the other hand, "Where Does the Time Go" is the album's low point lyrically, and even those tasteful guitars can't rescue the song from its "jiggity-jig" goofiness.

Of course, more important than songs and production, this band is all about drums and wires. Jim Loughlin and Vinnie Amico keep their crisp percussion tight and lively throughout, while Schnier and Garvey never stop exploring what can be done with their guitars. They give us Allman Brothers-style twin leads and duels, heavy metal punctuation, and composed progressive runs, all with a kind of effortless flair and precision.

These entertaining freaks and geeks have come a long way from their earliest, more ragged studio albums. While live magic remains their forte, they were among the first of the jam bands to prove their mettle in the studio, and The Conch extends their string of excellent musical snapshots. Now if they could just pick up the pace between releases ...

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