The thing about live music is just that: It’s live. The performance itself carries almost as much weight as the energy from the audience. You play. People (hopefully) respond. That response fuels the playing. The playing, in turn, fuels the response. It’s a cosmic type of vigor impossible to accurately depict with mere words.
Compromising that equation, of course, is the studio. You might be a great live band, but when you step into the booth to solidify your work, things change. The cosmos can’t be reproduced and you have to adjust. A missed hit here, a wrong note there is fine in front of a crowd. In the studio, though? That can be the difference between a good record and a great record.
By all accounts, Ginada Piñata is a very good live act. Falling into the jam band crowd, they actually deserve a more thoughtful descriptor. There’s some Steely Dan in them, a dash of select Frank Zappa instrumentals, some Billy Cobham textures, adult-contemporary R&B leanings and interesting guitar work that doesn’t not sound like it could be heard on the Weather Channel. See them live, and it’s a blast. Dancing is imperative. Musicians’ mouths water. Crowds go home happy.
But how does that translate into a studio LP? Well, in the case of their most recent self-titled album, the results are mixed. Yes, there are compelling turns that occur consistently throughout each of these eight songs, and sure, there’s no doubt it takes some seriously imaginative musical minds to craft a lot of what is heard here. But when you listen to a band like this, you want everything from the production to the performance to be crispier than a Don Draper suit. And while these songs get there sometimes … well, sometimes, they don’t.
Take “Open Road,” which showcases a bunch of great ideas. One of those great ideas is a time-signature manipulation that accents with regularity as the song progresses. It’s a neat trick — and it certainly suggests that these guys go the extra mile to put thought into the details of their work — but more often than not, the moments lack the confidence and consistency needed to sell the quirk. Sometimes they line up, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, the timbre stands tall; sometimes, it has weak knees. It’s frustrating because you can hear how great it could be with only a tiny bit more focus.
“Lancey” lives in the same creative area, a flurry of off-time pauses highlighting the track’s hook. When things do commence into structure, an awesomely funky guitar line takes hold and it’s clear that the riff was designed to stay in heads for days. An argument could be made, then, that the repeated returns to the awkward stabs make the song lose momentum, but instead, they grant the composition a layer of intrigue that should make fellow players grin each time they hear it.
Another smile-maker? Ken Bussey’s guitar playing. Album-ender “Joe” is a near perfect way to go out because of the spotlight that focuses intently on Bussey. Providing requisite instrumental runs and musical turns, the track also allows the guitar player to explore his bluesier influences, resulting in a series of solos (Sam Jannotta’s keys included) that reaches the amount of silk Ginada Piñata deserves in order to be so riveting at times. It’s a bittersweet goodbye.
Not as bittersweet, however, are the moments that groove takes precedence over everything surrounding it. “Spittin Lou” swings with a lazy funk that evokes visions of someone walking down a busy city street on a warm rainy day. It’s a fantastic way to begin the album. And “A1E” should make fellow area jammers SoulXChange smile. Laid back in feel, the song has a darkness to it that’s as sexy as it is smokey. Throw in some retrofitted “Superstition”-ish keys and it’s more than just the sci-fi sound effects that blasts the tune out of this world.
Still, it’s hard not to want more. For as inventive as Ginada Piñata, the band, can be, “Ginada Piñata,” the album, feels like a good introduction — and not a great representation of all these guys could achieve. Without question, there are moments throughout that force heads to turn and ears to open, but when you’re dealing with a group this promising, the standards are higher and the expectations more demanding.
That’s not to say this quartet isn’t still a very good live act. And it’s not even to say that they couldn’t be a very good studio collective. It’s just to say that hopefully next time, they pay more attention to that dastardly devil constantly lurking in the details.
** 2 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 **