"Picture moe., the pride of upstate New York, the venerable fivesome in their tenth year together, at the crossroads.
The year is 2001. They've released two albums in close proximity: the critically acclaimed studio project Dither, and the electrifying live document Warts and All Vol. 1. One bristles with tight, sharp cuts, and memorable hooks; the other dashes down dark alleys toward bursts of illumination, with all the anticipation of discovery that fans have come to expect from moe. shows.
Taken together, these CDs encompass the band's vast range, its yin and yang, balled first into high-impact bites and then sprung loose into streaming flights of imagination. Impressive … but somehow still not enough for these guys.
The question facing moe. at that point was simple: What now?
The answer is Wormwood. Scheduled to release on iMUSIC on February 4, 2003, this album solves a puzzle pondered by countless bands that have never been able to marry their performing and recording sides without some sort of compromise. The best live albums tend to fall a little short in audio quality and execution; the best studio products, especially from artists known for their stage chops, seem to miss some element of energy.
Not so with Wormwood, a live/studio hybrid, as much the product of meticulous editing and overdubbing as risky, go-for-it improvisation. But back in '01 it was little more than a gleam in Rob Derhak's eye.
""After we finished Dither we were like, 'Let's take it to the next level. We'll make the next one even more produced,'"" the bassist and singer recalls. ""But I started thinking that we should do something completely different -- something that sounds like the live show but at the same time had elements that are never in our live show. How do we do that? With segues.""
moe. fans know about segues -- the improvised episodes that the band uses onstage to travel from one song to the next. Fair enough, then: a studio album with segues. But Derhak sensed the laboratory vibe of the typical session could get in their way. With no crowd to spur them on, with the clock ticking, the results could be discouraging.
Then came the ""aha!"" moment. ""We decided to take basic tracks from our show and use them as the foundation for this record,"" says guitarist Al Schnier. ""That way we could capture the spirit we get onstage while making a killer studio album at the same time.""
Once the plan was clear, moe. started moving forward. There were some rules: They would do only new material, arrange it into different sequences, each with its own segues, and play entirely in the moment, without being distracted by the recording process. Once they'd assembled enough material, they'd disappear into the studio, pull out Vinnie Amico's drum tracks with Jim Loughlin's percussion, and brew up some Wormwood through a combination of edits, overdubs, and additional jamming.
Now that everything's finished, it's easy to give Wormwood a spin and gasp at the results. The new songs are inspired: The burning opener ""Not Coming Down""; ""Kyle's Song,"" a deceptively upbeat tribute to a friend and accident victim; the milky, mellow reverie that comes with ""Wormwood""; the dizzy mix of funk strut, jazzy bass, and crisp harmony vocals on ""Bullet"" -- everything here exemplifies the high standards that the band has set for itself in performance and writing.
But there's something else here too. It's hard to quantify but impossible to ignore: a sizzle in the rhythm, a sense of tension and focus in the solos. The concert feel is there, tugging at the taut fabric that the band wove over the drum tracks and through the spaces that separate each song. This is moe. at a place where they've never been: onstage … and, at the same time, in the studio.
Getting there wasn't always easy. ""It was tough,"" Derhak admits. ""We really didn't know what we were doing. Tensions ran high; there were a lot of barriers to cross in getting to know the technology. Our engineer actually got sick because things were so intense.""
As they scaled the learning curve, moe. realized that Wormwood was affecting them in ways they hadn't expected. ""It absolutely changed me to where I have a much more economical approach to solos,"" Schnier says. ""Even when I write songs, it's always been a thing with me to say, 'Okay, we need to vamp on this a little before we start singing.' But now I've learned that you don't really need to vamp all the time; it's often okay to just start singing.""
This doesn't mean that moe. will start pulling the plug on solos after eight bars -- but it does mean that Wormwood introduces a more disciplined, and ultimately more rewarding, approach to stretching out. ""Where Chuck might play a six-minute solo on one of the nights we recorded,"" Derhak explains, ""two minutes might involve him searching for what he wants to do. In editing that solo for Wormwood we wouldn't take out that entire two minutes; we'd keep something of that search in there, because that makes it stronger when he finds where he's going. If he ascends from that idea two or three times after that, we might take out two of those moments and keep one. That way the six-minute solo is reasonably shorter, but you still have the guts and the feel, and it sounds great.""
Longtime fans need not fear the effect of Wormwood. As guitarist Chuck Garvey sees it, this album is right in tune with what has made moe. one of the top draws on the concert circuit. ""It's risky,"" he insists. ""Just like our concerts, it takes chances.""
From where we stand, the view throughout Wormwood is spectacular. For the masters of moe., there is no place to go from here but deeper into even more daring territory -- which is, after all, where they've always felt most at home." - bighassle
Reviews"Here's what Moe have going for them: a rhythm section that elevates the ordinary jam-band improv with a working knowledge of R&B and funk ..." - Rolling Stone