Review: The Disco Biscuits - Otherwise Law Abiding Citizens

All words by guest contributor Yancy Davis

2010’s Planet Anthem by The Disco Biscuits was a project three years in the making that succeeded as an album while still falling prey to the same dilemma that has plagued almost every “jamband” album since Jerry Garcia was black-haired and marginally thin: How can a band with a large grass roots following that rabidly chases them across the country seeking epic, half hour renditions of fan favorites, evolve their music in any way toward a mainstream sound while still keeping the die-hard regulars from frothing angrily at their mouths? Featuring a wide variety of guest artists and producers, Planet Anthem was the most professional and commercially successful offering by the talented founders of “trance-fusion” since the band’s inception in Philadelphia in the mid-90’s.  Fan reaction, however, to the album that was more a departure from the deeply-rooted jamtronica sound that so typically defines The Disco Biscuits ran the gamut from optimistic to confused to the aforementioned “frothing.” 

If the prior album was a melodic science experiment aimed at pushing the boundaries of their well-defined sound, this year’s Otherwise Law Abiding Citizens is a love letter to the band’s steadfast, hyper-critical fans that practically revels in its attempts at capturing their explosive live sound in a studio environment.   The album was recorded almost immediately upon completion of their spring tour, and effectively manages to maintain the energy and synergistic cohesion that only several months of relentless nightly practice on stage can bring about.  Eschewing all thoughts of mainstream radio play, the shortest song on the 68 minute album clocks in at just under six minutes, and every track contains at least a few minutes of ethereally charged, danceable music viscerally evoking in its listeners everything from passive head nodding to passionately spasmodic fist pumping.  Although the songs are long, detractors of the genre may be pleased to find almost all of them imminently focused, and lacking in “noodling,” the heavily criticized habit of jamming without themes or direction for upwards of twenty or more minutes at a time. 

The nine songs on the album – a relative bargain on the band’s website at just $4.99 for high quality mp3s, or free for those willing to settle for 128 kbps – are a mix of recent additions and concert standards dating from as far back as 2002.  At just over ten minutes long, the instrumental Great Abyss, a fan favorite since its first appearance over five years ago, enthusiastically opens the album. Though the first dub-inspired notes practically ooze out the speakers sleepily, drummer Allen Aucoin uses almost inhumanly digital precision to nurture the song into a fast-paced roller-coaster ride that never quite relinquishes its hold on any listener with even mild leanings toward the Disco Biscuits’ live sound.  And keyboardist Aron Magner brilliantly creates the euphorically spine-tingling atmosphere on this and every other song on the album, setting himself up as the primary conduit for the “trance” part of the band’s “trance-fusion” sound.  

Despite a leaning toward more instrumental pieces in written years – two of the bands side projects, Tractor Beam and Conspirator, perform almost entirely without vocal assistance – only the opening and closing tracks on the album lack some basic lyrics.  The back-to-back “Feeling Twisted” and “Bombs” seem to target different aspects of the wild child fans of the jamtronica scene.  While “Feeling Twisted” almost critically points out that “You left your house, you left your girl/You left it all for another world/You left your job, you lost your car/You left it all, it was so bizarre,” the latter seems to cockily extol the wanna-be rock star lifestyle, stating “We smokin’ firecrackers and they ready to pop/We got bottles of bubbly and we’re shakin’ em up/Tonight we’re gonna blow it up.”  And in the same vein, “We Like To Party” (“...sorry if you don’t,” the song insouciantly continues) makes no attempt at being poetically profound, yet the chorus practically demands to be chanted along with in unison by hundreds of sweaty, flatbrim-clad fans suffering from early onset Peter Pan Syndrome.  

While the adorably sleazy “Neck Romancer” takes top prize as the best wordplay-based song name by this or any other band in 2011, the breakout track of the album is no doubt bassist Marc Brownstein’s “Portal to an Empty Head.”  Hypnotically melancholy from its onset, the dolefully self-reflective lyrics are delivered as effectively as the Biscuits – not necessarily known for their vocal abilities – ever have before.  Guitarist Jon Gutwillig in particular shines on this track, patiently building out of the song’s fading chorus into a fiery solo that impeccably provides a demonstration for anyone curious about how the verb “shred” got to be attached to the otherwise graceful act of guitar playing.  

No one is going to accuse Otherwise Law Abiding Citizens of being The Disco Biscuits’ most ambitious studio effort; recorded in just two weeks, the hodge podge of various concert centerpieces never even fake at being avant garde reconstructions of the band’s well-established sound.  Instead, the entire album consists of pitch-perfect renditions of current live favorites in pristinely produced studio clarity.  More than any album prior, The Disco Biscuits’ latest treat deserves a spot on the bookcase along with any diehard fan’s top live choices, as opposed to being dropped in the nostalgia shoebox in the basement filled with countless well-meaning studio experiments from jambands past.  

As for those ears as yet unintroduced to the bombastic, live-tronica sounds of The Disco Biscuits, the album won’t be for everyone; but it will serve as an excellently approachable indoctrination for anyone with even modest curiosity about the band’s signature sound, and all without even having to casually choose between over a thousand live performances (each labeled “epic” in the show comments) available online.  For the price alone, this fun and lively snapshot of the band at their best is more than worth the download.  

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Editor's Note:

You can catch the Disco Biscuits on tour with the rest of the Identity Festival (which also features the likes of The Crystal Method, DJ Shadow and Skrillex) as it it makes it's stop at Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, VA this Thursday. Not from DC? NO PROBLEM! The festival keeps rolling on across the country winding up at the Gorge on September 10th. Make sure you get your tickets now because they're going fast.

Identity Festival 2011 Dates:
08/11 – Noblesville, IN @ Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre
08/12 – Clarkston, MI @ DTE Energy Music Theatre
08/13 – Burgettstown, PA @ First Niagara Pavilion
08/14 – Holmdel, NJ @ PNC Bank Arts Center
08/16 – Charlotte, NC @ Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre
08/18 – Bristow, VA @ Jiffy Lube Live
08/19 – Camden, NJ @ Susquehanna Bank Center
08/20 – Mansfield, MA @ Comcast Center
08/21 – Wantagh, NY @ Jones Beach Amphitheatre
08/23 – Atlanta, GA @ Lakewood Amphitheatre
08/24 – Tampa, FL @ 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre
08/27 – The Woodlands, TX @ Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
08/28 – Dallas, TX @ Gexa Energy Pavilion
08/30 – Albuquerque, NM @ Hard Rock Casino Presents: The Pavilion
09/02 – Chula Vista, CA @ Cricket Wireless Amphitheatre
09/03 – Mountain View, CA @ Shoreline Amphitheatre
09/04 – Los Angeles, CA @ TBA
09/05 – Las Vegas, NV @ TBA
09/10 – George, WA @ The Gorge