Album review: The Big Wu's first LP since 2004 a generic dud
It's no secret that jam-band studio albums aren't really very good. Go ask a Phishhead — they'll tell you that they don't really care that much for the band's non-live output. For them, the three-minute studio version of "Old Mickey Takes a Swig" (or whatever Phish songs are usually called) is nothing compared to the 23-minute one they did on 7/6/11 at Subway Sandwich Arena in Massachusetts, and the one on 9/14/14 they did at the Wendy's Baconator Arena in Virginia was really "surprisingly funky."
The thing about jam bands is, without the jamming, they're just "bands." And usually not very good ones. Ask yourself: how many Phish songs do you ever hear, just out in the world? How often does a Grateful Dead tune other than their '80s fluke hit "Touch of Grey" come pouring out of a radio? The truth is that jam bands are for jam band fans and not really anyone else. Which everyone involved is probably fine with, honestly.
Minnesota's biggest jam band is probably The Big Wu, who named their group after a reference from a Tom Hanks movie because they probably smoked too much weed in a dorm room at St. Olaf one night in 1992. Terrible name aside, The Big Wu is also a pretty terrible band. Not because they are bad instrumentalists — on the contrary. Like most jam bands, they are quite proficient at their respective implements. The problem is that their music is watered-down, bland, lifeless and without passion whatsoever. It's like Yanni or John Tesh, only boring.
The Big Wu's new album is called "We Are Young We Are Old," and it's got nine songs on it that, taken together, possess all the flavor and spice of a Minnesotan Lutheran church hotdish contest. But, you can bet that, this summer, when the Wu is stretching out the songs on it and going off on 20-minute tangents using them as a jumping-off point, there will be rejoicing. Caucasian men with dreadlocks will say "Dude!" as "Ghostbirds" or "Bound for the South" become the canvases upon which The Big Wu paints their improvised masterpieces.
Really, the biggest issue here — as with all jam bands — is with the vocals. You'd think that counter-cultural musicians would sing more interestingly, but The Big Wu goes for the clean, inflection-free style of their forebears in Phish and the Dead. There's no edge, no bite, no anything. These guys sound like they're as chillaxed as Jimmy Buffett on a Hawaii beach. They sound like The Eagles without all the punk-rock attitude. They sound like socks worn together with sandals.
"I really love to scream and shout," a lyric to the screamless, shoutless "Kick in the Head" goes. "I'd go crazy if I wasn't so lazy." Apparently, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter came up with these words and gave them to the New Riders of the Purple Sage back in the '70s. The Big Wu thought they were so good that they needed to be put into a whole new song. Seriously, they felt that the line "Sent you for jelly / you come back with jam" was worth reviving in 2019. Really, you don't have to be Rage Against the Machine or Kendrick Lamar to be relevant, but moves like these make them seem out-of-touch and quite privileged to be singing about being so incredibly comfy.
The band gets points for trying on a Mudhoney-like garage-rock style on "Ready to Burn," but its soulless George Thorogood vocals destroy the whole vibe. At least they wait until the middle of the record to start playing stilted reggae that has all the authenticity of a jam-shorts blues band. Oh, and then on the next track, they just become a jam-shorts blues band.
The Big Wu can play their instruments, but so can, y'know, Celine Dion's band in Vegas. Their songs are every shade of generic, unfortunately, and that makes their new record a dud. But, hey, no one will care when they're tripping out in a field, covered in mosquito bites and listening to the Wu turn these songs into the most mind-expanding stuff "since Jerry got on that tear in late '77 on the Northeastern tour." Or whatever.
Artist: The Big Wu
Album: "We Are Young We Are Old"
Recorded at: Brytespot Studio, Minneapolis
Personnel: Chris Castino (guitar, vocals), Andy Miller (bass), Terry VanDeWalker (drums. vocals), Al Oikari (keyboards), Mark Joseph Grundhoefer (guitar, vocals)