The String Cheese Incident's new album is, as its title suggests, more than a little loopy. Once the percussive prelude "Samba DeGreeley" subsides, the quintet is off and running, merrily tracing a circuitous route through pop, rock, jazz, world beat, bluegrass, country, R&B and what-have-you. The journey is dizzying at times, and a little short on memorable tunes, but overall the band's sense of fun and instrumental finesse makes for an entertaining excursion.
For all it's genre-leaping tactics, what makes the album rise above the average jam band outing is the level of musicianship heard throughout the recording. Because the core quintet, which features mandolinist Michael Kang, guitarist Bill Nershi and percussionist Michael Travis, is augmented by such stellar players as saxophonist Paul McCandless and banjoist Tony Furtado, the performances are dotted with enjoyable solos and fills that prevent lulls from setting in for very long. As a result, the band seldom sounds as self-indulgent as many of its peers, even when the group sounds as if it's about to move into freely improvised territory.
Guitarist and pop eccentric Keller Williams, currently touring with String Cheese Incident, can be heard on "Breathe." Playing several instruments, including 10-string acoustic and six-string electric guitars, Williams weaves a lot of quirky textures and riffs into his original compositions, borrowing freely from funk, reggae, folk, pop and jazz to create a series of colorful backdrops for his curious musings ("Best Feelings"), entertaining rants ("Stupid Questions") and offbeat tales ("Vacate"). The last of these tunes is typical of Williams's skewed take on things, as he and his String Cheese Incident bandmates veer back and forth across the pop map, reveling in funk beats and fusion interludes while unfolding a surreal tale that's as baffling as it is engaging. At times Williams sounds like Michael Franks might after ingesting a few choice hallucinogens.
In a more subdued setting, Williams pays tribute to the late guitarist Michael Hedges on "Not of this Earth." He sings of his guitar hero with tender affection, while his own guitar work conjures Hedges's spirit and nimbly underscores the impact of his influence. All in all, a strange and delightfully odd album.
Appearing Friday at the Recher Theatre (String Cheese Incident only) and Saturday at the 9:30 club. To hear a free Sound Bite from the String Cheese Incident, call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8126. For a Sound Bite from Keller Williams, press 8127. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)