Few Widespread Panic fans are likely to pick the band’s last two studio albums (Ball or Earth to America) as their favorite release, and even fewer Spreadheads will probably suggest Free Somehow, as a top pick (those nods are usually reserved for Everyday or ‘Til the Medicine Takes). Give or take a couple songs, Widespread Panic’s tenth studio album, Free Somehow, is a surprisingly bold departure from anything the Georgia rockers have previously recorded.
Returning to Compass Point Studios with Terry Manning (Led Zeppelin, Al Green, ZZ Top), the studio scene of Earth to America, Free Somehow further pushes the bond of trust between Panic and Manning, as they make full use of the studio, adding layers of orchestral strings, background singers, horns, and woodwinds to provide a "Physical Graffiti/ Presence" embossing. Unlike previous Panic albums where tracks were ‘road-tested’ on stage before being laid down, Free Somehow offers a majority of tunes that have yet to make their live debut.
Although most tracks offer a daring creative evolution, the album begins and ends in familiar territory- from the jubilant opener “Boom Boom Boom” to the rowdy “Up All Night” conclusion. But it’s the center parts of Free Somehow that explores darker territory, particularly on the lyrically straightforward surroundings of “Walk on the Flood” and the introspective “Dark Day Program.”
The album’s signature song -“Angels on High” – floats around a lively beat and horn section that features a retro R&B groove. While it’s destined to be a live favorite, this polished version features a jazzy, Steely Dan style solo by guitar wizard Jimmy Herring. The newcomer’s approach is subtle throughout the record, adding colorful textures, particularly on “Three Candles” and lending his axe in just the right spots on the folksy “Tickle the Truth.”
John Bell (JB) handles all the vocals with barely a bluesy belt from Jo Jo Hermann. From Bell’s soulful vocals on the menacing “Three Candles” to his voice of reason on the optimistic title track, these are certainly mature compositions that speak beyond live performance dance material. Speaking of dance, its “Her Dance Needs No Body” that is the album shocker, as it’s divided into movements that borderline prog-metal excess, mixed with a David Sanborn-ish sax solo and orchestral flourishes, making for a perplexing listen.
If it’s creative evolution in the studio that keeps bands energized and united, then more power to them. Free Somehow isn’t one of Widespread Panic’s best albums, but it shows they are creatively “free somehow,” which after all their uncertainty the past six years, that really isn’t such a bad thing.