Sound: If you're at all familiar with jam bands beyond the name "Grateful Dead" you've probably heard of Tea Leaf Green. For the most part, they fall into the mold of the genre: guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard playing relatively straightforward rock songs. However, Tea Leaf Green is unique in their concise song structure (compared to, say, Phish) and this album shows it. Instead of the long jams and looseness of Tea Leaf's earlier work this album is pretty tight, with an emphasis on lyrics instead of musical interplay. But even for fans of jamming, it's refreshing to hear a more laid-back back-to-basics sound (remember Workingman's Dead?). Plus, the album is made up largely of songs the band has toured with for years, so you need only download a few live shows to find most of them in all of their 10+ minute glory.
One interesting thing Tea Leaf has done with Looking West is to create atmospheres with the lyrics, which have always been poetic to some degree or another. More on the lyrics in the next section but suffice to say that songs like Bastard Brother and Jackson Hole are very effective in evoking a picture in the mind of the listener. The band does not alter their sound so much as invert it, using vocals to pull the listener in instead of instrumental hooks. On this album we hear the other side of the band, a side it would be nice *ahem* to hear from their peers more often.
Nevertheless, Josh Clark's guitar work is still an integral part of the album, even if he has to contain himself a bit. His playing isn't really anything new, but he does get away from the pentatonic noodling you hear from a lot of jam bands (although Clark has always been an exceptional improviser). Again, he creates an atmosphere with his playing that compliments the lyrics, serving to enhance each song without reverting to jamming.
I would have liked to hear more of Trevor's keys on the album (Check out the band's Living In Between for an example of how keyboards can make an album) but like Clark, he switches up his usual vintage EP sounds. However, unlike the guitar work, the keys are more of a curiosity than an enhancement to the album. I've hear better from Garrod in that department.
This album is the band's second with their new bassist, Reed Mathis. I haven't heard the first one and I haven't really studied how Mathis has been contributing to the band, but I'm not hearing much innovation here. The bass levels are too low throughout the album and Mathis doesn't anchor songs the way the previous bassist, Chambers, did. Mathis's high point is on Emma Lee, where he really does take the song up a level in a way that Chamber's admittedly probably wouldn't have done.
The whole album is EQ'ed really strangely, and this is my biggest gripe. Tea Leaf's earlier albums were all bass-heavy but this one is, for some inexplicable reason, the opposite. Personally, I dislike it, but that may be because I'm a huge fan of the earlier work. In any case, the equalization strips away the thickness of Tea Leaf Green's sound. It's probably more a matter of personal preference, but in my view it was a mistake.
To sum it all up, this album doesn't do anything for rock music, but it does show a new side of Tea Leaf Green. The songs are carefully crafted and should appeal to jam band fans as well as anyone who likes not too heavy rock or pop music. The quintessential Tea Leaf Green sound is there and hasn't gotten old, proving that the band has a formula that works. // 7
Lyrics: For me, the most striking thing about Tea Leaf has always been the lyrics, even though these guys kill it live. Trevor is open to heartfelt and above all sincere songwriting, but at the same time avoids melodrama. He's emotional without being emo or angsty, which is good because I can't stand emo or angsty. Tea Leaf Green has always been on the high end of the jam band lyrical continuum with Robert Hunter's finest moments (and let's face it, Phish is on the bottom), and this album is no different.
As I said before, "Looking West" has a large focus on lyrics, with the band choosing to strip down fan favorites from their setlists and showcase them in a different light. When the jamming is removed from the equation, Tea Leaf Green still shines on the strength of the lyrics and the atmosphere they create (especially on Drink of Streams and Can't Get High). Trevor hasn't really matured as a lyricist but that doesn't matter because the band hasn't really changed its sound. The lyrics, Trevor's voice, and the music fit with and truly strengthen each other, an impressive accomplishment for any album.
One complaint: the EQ is most annoying because of its effect on Trevor's vocals. Just compare Looking West to Living In Between and you'll see what I mean-he sounds completely different. This change took me a while to get used to because it's there on every song. It would have been interesting on one or two numbers, but it's disconcerting at first if you've heard the previous albums. However, it's grown on me after a couple of listens, and doesn't really detract from the album too terribly.
As a final note on lyrics, Josh Clark (I think) takes vocal duties on several songs. Surprisingly, he does a pretty good job, taking some parts that Trevor would sound weird doing. Bouncing Betty is a low point, however, both in lyrics and singing. All in all, it's another element that's interesting but doesn't do much for the album one way or another. // 8
Overall Impression: If this were any other jam band, I would have said Looking West was quite good. But for Tea Leaf Green, it's a step down. The highlights, My Bastard Brother, Jackson Hole, Drink of Streams, and Don't Let It Down, are as good as anything Tea Leaf has ever done, and the rest of the album is fine for the most part. But tracks like Without a Broom are so much better live, and come off as dull when the band can't just let it rip like they do on stage. While it's interesting to hear a back-to-basics approach, they're supposed to be a jam band for Christ's sake. Let's hear some jams! Living In Between, their third album, did an amazing job of balancing songs and jams, but Looking West is a bit too structured. And the EQ sucks. I've heard it said that Taught To Be Proud was Tea Leaf's Workingman's Dead, but I think Looking West is closer to that. However, Tea Leaf doesn't hit the same notes as the Grateful Dead did with their cowboy aesthetic and acoustic guitars. They are effing good at jamming, so why leave out one of their biggest strengths?
If you've never heard Tea Leaf Green, you are missing out, but don't buy this album. Start with Living In Between or Taught To Be Proud. If you're already familiar, buy this album. It's worth the money and you will enjoy it. Better yet, go see them live. That's what being a jam band is all about, after all. // 7