Widespread Panic returns with another tasty helping of their distinctive Southern-fried jam, an album of road-tested tracks that most Spreadheads will be familiar with from the band’s 2005 tours. The band follows the Grateful Dead formula for success: relentless touring by a sextet comprised of two guitars, bass, keyboards and two drummers, technically Domingo Ortiz is a percussionist, but they have more soul and funk in their music.
The band is still dealing with the loss of founder Michael Houser’s death from pancreatic cancer back in August of 2002. They mourn their friend with heartfelt lyrics and come to terms with moving on as a band without him.
“Second Skin,” the opening track, is a song of rebirth and second chances. It opens with a quiet build-up of swirling electronic sounds on the keyboard and plucked guitar strings. A slow, thunderous drumbeat takes over before the guitar begins to swoop and soar and John Bell’s raspy vocals kick in.
The Phuket Chamber Orchestra augments the band at times, adding a fullness and majesty. The song ends with a three-minute coda as the band gives way to the orchestra combined with the keyboard softly beating like a heart. The final minute is a hushed spacey riff reminiscent of Pink Floyd.
“Goodpeople” starts off as a slightly funky toe-tapper, but on the bridge The Compass Point Horns lead the way as a unit, bringing much-welcomed soul to the party. “From The Cradle” is a new track that got worked up in the studio. It opens with just Bell and an acoustic guitar lamenting life’s struggles before the band joins him. He sings about someone whose “been labeled/About as stable as a drunk on shaky ground.”
One solution offered is “hangin’ on to a solid rock/Made before the foundation of the world” from a cover of Dylan’s “Solid Rock” from Saved, the second of his Christian albums. After some good guitar work on the first bridge, John Hermann’s Hammond organ slowly takes over the song, leading the way home as expected on a gospelesque track.
“Time Zones” starts off interesting, but the orchestra restrains the song from taking off. I enjoyed the lyrics about pushing ahead through life’s difficulties, but it could have used a better arrangement to let the rest of the band breakout. “When the Clowns Come Home” used to be known as “Cows Come Home.” It’s okay, but isn’t as strong as the other tracks.
“Ribs and Whiskey,” formerly known as “Seen Your Sister Naked” and going as far back as 1990, is a great honky-tonk number. George McConnell lays down some fantastic pedal steel while Hermann’s piano gets the juke joint jumpin’. “Crazy” is a tale inspired by Vincent Van Gogh.
It has a Latin flavor and Domingo Ortiz’s percussion comes to the forefront. The album closes out with “May Your Glass Be Filled.” a somber ode to friendship that could easily have been an Irish ballad with the proper arrangement and accent. The organ plays the outro, which quietly drifts into the ether for the last minute.
Earth to America is a good album and a much better step forward for the band than their previous album, Ball. They create a variety and consistency in their sound that delivers well for the most part. However, the true test of these songs is undetermined because that will be decided by the frequency they appear on the road and the enthusiasm with which they are greeted. The more they are played, the more likely that the arrangements will change, especially considering The Phuket Chamber Orchestra and The Compass Point Horns aren’t accompanying them.