Thursday, March 17, 2011
Widespread Panic Self-titled, aka Mom’s Kitchen
After releasing their debut Space Wrangler on the regional Landslide label, Widespread Panic found themselves courted by several major labels throughout 1990. Though the band had already recorded their potential second album at John Keane’s Athens studio in September, the sessions, which included the band’s most guitar-driven material ever recorded, would eventually be scrapped when Panic signed with Capricorn Records in January 1991.
At the bequest of Capricorn, the band brought in a hired gun, T Lavitz on keyboards, adding a new dimension to the songs. A former member of the Dixie Dregs, Lavitz playing pushed the rest of the band to perform better than ever before, especially Dave School’s bass playing.
The major label influence brought a time of unparalleled change in the lives of Widespread Panic, as the band’s music diverted from the Houser led wah-heavy guitar sounds of 1990, and evolved in to a more diversely musical combination, the first signs of what would later become known as the six-headed beast. Perhaps the most underappreciated of all Panic albums, the self titled release, which later became known as Mom’s Kitchen in ode to the soul food diner featured in the album’s liner notes, was an intriguing mix of a label seeking a radio friendly hit with “Walkin’ (For Your Love),” while also featuring many of the band’s down and dirty classics, including “Love Tractor,” “Barstools and Dreamers” and “Proving Ground.”
The album kicks off with a pair of songs the label found to be radio friendly “Send Your Mind” and “Walkin’,” before the initial notes of “Pigeons” signals a serious diversion. With Dave’s pounding bass leading the way, “Pigeons” replicated the band’s live sound more than any of the tracks on their previous release.
“Mercy,” a song the band had yet to perform live before heading to the studio, follows. Featuring the beautiful vocals of Samantha Woods accompanying JB, along with Mike Houser’s soaring sonic guitar, this seven minute march could only be lead by Widespread Panic. JB takes a rare turn playing lead as he slides in to “Rock,” a track the gives Dave plenty of time to show his amazing signature lead bass lines.
After JB gets everybody’s arms and legs moving along, the band launches in to new territory with the first of what would become many Bloodkin songs added to their repertoire. As JB proclaimed, “It makes sense to me, I must confess,” it suddenly seems clear that, without warning, Widespread Panic had evolved from a guitar driven rock band doing the best they could in to a group of professional musicians, pushing the envelope of their songs to places never previously envisioned. And, though few give him much, if any, credit, the role Lavitz played in pushing the musical development of the members of the band is something that should never be forgotten. Not only did the man add an entire new dimension to Panic with his beautiful keys, the level of orchestration he helped add to the group’s sound would become as much a part of their signature sound as Mike’s lingering leads, JB’s everyman lyrics, and Dave’s one-of-a-kind lead bass.
“C Brown” is one of those beautiful Panic gems that always makes you smile. Though he was childhood a friend of the Charles Shultz family, JB was not the one to pen the lyrics for this owed to Charlie Brown. While Panic did write the music, the words came from their friend Jeff Riley. Though not original in that regard, the words “trying to do as we should” and “doing what feels good” would become common themes that still run throughout many of the band’s songs to this day.
From the moment you first heard “Love Tractor,” it was instantly apparent this was a song played with a passion and fire possessed by few others. “Weight of the World,” on the other hand, marked entirely new territory for the band, stepping out on a limb by adding the Memphis Horns to the mix.
“I’m Not Alone,” the love struck song ala Widespread Panic, starts with JB’s singing about unscrewing a bottle of beer and that famed square of “cellophane cheese.” By song’s end, he utters the classic lines “I feel a little easier now, knowing that you’re all here,” words of joy that still send shivers up the spine of any true Panic fan. Throughout, Mike’s wah-led guitar is front and center, a strong reminder that, new direction or not, the lingering lead would forever remain the signature Panic sound.
The remainder of Mom’s Kitchen can only be described as classic Panic. If forced to select back to back studio songs that best represent what the band is all about, one would be hard pressed to name a better combination than “Barstools & Dreamers” and “Proving Ground.” After all, what screams Widespread Panic more than a song about finding your way to a bar, where your hands are “just right for a new kind of dance,” followed by the song seeking to “find out just how tall” you are, as the band erupts in to a mind-melting jam? If ever there was a song that best showcases what the rhythm section of Todd Nance and Sunny Ortiz do best, it has to be “Proving Ground.”
In classic Panic fashion, the heaviest of songs are followed by a healthy dose of light. “The Last Straw” is the light that brings Widespread Panic to a beautiful close. Having taken the listener on a journey that fills every possible minute a CD can handle, the band does what they do best – six young men, making sparks and catching fire, erupting in to some of the finest music known to man.
Before heading to the studio to record, Dave and I talked about the “sophomore jinx” that so many bands face in recording their second album. Dave summarized the plight by saying, “You have your entire life to get ready for your first album, then before you know it, it’s time to do it again.” Though my friend may not have felt prepared, I knew better. At this point in their career, a time when everything they touched just seemed to get better and better, the only question in my mind was how much better would the band become after adding a new player to the mix.
Though Widespread Panic starts out sounding a major label’s attempt at commercializing the band’s sound, by the third track, it becomes evident that Panic had not bowed to such demands, and instead had simply polished their chops and taken a huge leap forward as professionals. From JB’s crisp, clear vocals to Mike’s shred-filled lingering leads to Dave thundering bass lines, Widespread Panic is indeed an album that lives up to its name. Though Space Wrangler seems destined to forever live as the favorite release amongst fans, a fresh listen to this self titled release offers a much closer glimpse in to what the band was working to become – a six-headed monster that can make music like no other.