Formed in 2009 and self-described as “The bastard sons of Rush and Ralph Stanley,” Minneapolis quartet The Galactic Cowboy Orchestra always offers something fairly unique. A quirky blend of bluegrass, jazz, and fusion/prog, their first two efforts—Lookin’ for a Little Strange and All Out of Peaches—were wonderfully humble yet diverse and complex excursions. On its third outing, Zombie Mouth, the group changes up its formula significantly, offering a more streamlined sound (in parts) and more overtly aggressive attitude. Although this new formula doesn’t always work wonders, the record’s confidence, eccentricity, and musicianship more than make up for its flaws.
On Zombie Mouth, The Galactic Cowboy Orchestra consists of husband and wife duo John and Lisi Wright (bass and fiddle/vocals, respectively), Dan Neale (guitar), and Mark O’Day (drums). Interestingly, O’Day has since been replaced by Billy Thommes. As for influences, the group cites a varied list, including Chick Corea, Bela Fleck, John Coltrane, and Jeff Beck, and they’ve released plenty of unique cover versions over the years. Of course, their original material is what keeps fans salivating, and on the whole Zombie Mouth is an impressive addition to the catalogue (despite some less than stellar moments).
The aforementioned change in direction is immediately apparent on opener “So Long,” which features Lisi on vocals for the first time in the outfit’s career. Although her melody isn’t especially enticing, her voice is seductive and sharp, with a calculated cadence that fits well with the music. In fact, she sounds similar to Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond, The Decemberists). Musically, the track is a fairly straightforward rocker that’s elevated with smart dynamics and intriguing effects throughout. It’s a harsher aesthetic overall, but it still gets your foot tapping.
The tried and true GCO formula returns on tracks like “Wrong Shui,” “Galacticity,” and “All or Nothing,” three gems that echo Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels era in both its timbres, intensity, and of course, fascinating intricacy. There are also traces of Gentle Giant, Echolyn, and Mahavishnu Orchestra scattered around, which is never a bad thing. The former places the madness over Wright’s controlled bass lines, allowing him to serve as the foundation for the rest of the band’s trickery. Likewise, the middle number showcases crazy tempo shifts, as well as plenty of admirable counterpoints (especially Wright’s fiddle playing, which is sincere and precise). Finally, “All or Nothing” is noticeably soothing in spite of its virtuosic flourishes. Its controlled chaos would be perfect for the soundtrack of an avant-garde film.
Elsewhere, “In to You” is a funky acoustic guitar showpiece that has more in common with Steve Howe’s “The Clap” than, say, Steve Hackett’s “Horizons.” The chords are warm and layered, the arpeggios are mysterious and comforting, and the transitions are innovative. As a guitarist, I’ve always been fascinated with pieces like this, as I often wonder how the musician can construct something so focused yet overwhelmingly deep and disjointed. That’s definitely the case here, and it’s a wonderful little attraction. Similarly, “Going Nowhere Fast” is a fun hoedown with exceptional, downright poetic instrumentation, while “Broken Marionette” is hypnotic and patient while also implementing an array of technical arrangements. It’s formulas like these which make GCO stand out so much.
Unfortunately, Zombie Mouth suffers a bit when it deviates too far from the aforementioned brilliance. Essentially, the more commercial rockers, such as “Floating,” “Give Me More,” and “Sleep,” seem almost incongruous amidst the rest of the pack. It’s as if the group is releasing its inner punk stepchild, ever so slightly channeling rebellious acts like Garbage, Green Day, and NIN in the process. Don’t get me wrong—their playing is still powerful and engaging, and the sheer boldness of experimenting with such a deviation is commendable, but these selections also feel a bit out of place. In fact, it wouldn’t have been a radical idea to split up the tracks on Zombie Mouth into two separate offerings (similar to what Opeth and Ayreon have done in the past), as half of the sequence feels dramatically different from the other half.
All in all, Zombie Mouth should please fans of the quartet’s previous outings, as well as anyone looking for a bit more tension, complication, and variety in its downhome instrumentation. When the GCO is on fire, every second is gripping, and while its first foray into more traditional songwriting and singing isn’t always a success, it’s still worthy of applause simply because it’s so different and risky. In any case, Zombie Mouth, like its predecessors, is a justly idiosyncratic work, which is remarkable enough considering how devoid of ideas and originality most popular music is these days. The band is doing something fresh and difficult, so they deserve some time in the spotlight.