I’ve seen the Slip a lot. I’ve seen the band in its native Rhode Island, in its adopted hometown of Boston. In San Francisco. Probably ten times in upstate New York. And as much as I wanted to classify it otherwise, the Slip, when I used to see it play, driving hours to the shows, was a jam band. With a heavy jazz influence-both free and traditional-it was an impressive force, combining a lighter rock influence with visceral jazz freak-outs. But it was still a jam band, and the relentless experimentation and increasingly inward nature of the music came with a price. The songs became unfocused. I stopped going to the shows.
So my surprise was justified when I heard “Even Rats,” the single off 2006’s Eisenhower (the band’s fourth studio album), which starts with drummer Andrew Barr quick-stepping over Mark Friedman’s non-traditional repetitive harmonic bass line, and, after forty seconds, shifts into a straight-ahead half-time rock verse drenched in a wall of distorted, processed guitar. The chorus is simple enough-“Wha-aho wha-ao wha-aho”-building intensely, reaching for the arena rafters until the final two minutes, which reprises the free-funk intro with guitar. There are even quirky, but decidedly normal lyrics: “Maybe the men up on Capitol Hill/ Need a little less Jack and a little more Jill.” It’s an instantly accessible song, and just like opener “Children of December,” a great song, but it only hints at the intensity, restraint and range of Eisenhower.
Those familiar with the Slip will find comfort in the weaving, polyrhythmic intelli-funk of opener “Children of December” and “Airplane/Primitive.” Those still holding out for a jam band will certainly find vindication here; there are out-there moments, most notably on the Miles Davis Live-Evil electric exercise of “Original Blue Air.”
Others looking to hear a band step away from the unhinged jamming aesthetic will find their solace not only in singer/guitarist Brad Barr’s songwriting, but also in his voice, which functions as a natural, powerful accompaniment to a band that previously had little use for vocals-or had them function more as an afterthought. Taking his melodic cues from the Wilco of Summerteeth and A.M.-co-producer Matthew Ellard worked with Billy Bragg and Wilco-Barr leads the band through “Life in Disguise,” “The Soft Machine” and “Mothwing Bite,” the latter of which peppers a lilting, sing-song verse over dozens of guitar and synthesizers, managing, despite its sonic intricacy, to sound both traditional and forward-thinking, sweet and spacious.
And for a band so adept at layering and complex phrasing and arrangement, the song with the most energy, the most emotional immediacy, is “If One of Us Should Fall,” a delicate love letter backed by Barr and Friedman, who manage to morph their jazz-leanings and perfect, communicative interplay into the backdrop for a simple, intelligent, rock-ballad. They hinted at this type of folksy rock on “Through the Iron Gate,” from their 2000 album Does, but “If One of Us Should Fall” and “Paper Birds”-though the lyrics on “Birds” are more obtuse-represents the intricate calm, the quiet power and sonic future vision that the Slip and few other bands-see tourmates My Morning Jacket-are capable of.
Eisenhower is accessible, but in its own proficiency, still experimental. It is not by definition a rock album, though in its own way it rocks. There are still long, jazz-tinged, space-shifting instrumental interludes, “First Panda in Space,” but to think of it as a jam band disc would weaken it and distract the listener from the solid, focused core of the album.
Because the Slip is full of such strong musicians, there were a lot of directions in which Eisenhower could’ve gone. Thankfully, restraint and subtlety, mixed with highly skilled, if unexpected, songwriting, commanded this album. Eisenhower is the soundtrack to the Slip’s seamless, mature transformation, an outward vision for the future grounded in the past. Its most pristine accomplishment, however, is the remarkable feat of having this same transformative effect on the listener.