On its previous three LPs, Minneapolis quartet The Galactic Cowboy Orchestra set itself apart from the pack by offering an irresistible blend of progressive rock, funk, jazz, and bluegrass. Drawing as much from King Crimson and Mahavishnu Orchestra as The Allman Brothers Band and Dixie Dregs, the group managed to infuse its impeccable and colorful musicianship with a lot of charm and humility too. Fortunately, that legacy is still kept intact on Earth Lift, another consistently exciting, catchy, and impressive collection of multifaceted yet manageable intricacy.
Once again, the line-up consists of Dan Neale (guitar/vocals), John Wright (bass/vocals), and Lisi Wright (violin/vocals). In addition, drummer Alec Tackmann gets to show his skills after replacing Mark O’Day following last year’s Zombie Mouth. Speaking of Zombie Mouth¸ it marked the first time The GCO ventured into songwriting (courtesy of Lisi Wright’s vocals), and while it wasn’t always wholly successful, it was still a commendable new avenue. On Earth Lift, Wright does a better job of, well, singing better songs; this improvement, coupled with the exceptional instrumental passages, makes Earth Lift a superior offering overall.
The band’s trademark thick rhythms and sleek counterpoints reveal themselves immediately on opener “Forward Motion (Part 2).” Neale and John Wright often offer the same quick patterns simultaneously while Lisi Wright scorches her violin and Tackmann keeps things going with just enough syncopation. Afterward, “You Do That” is funkier and more aggressive, with Wright’s delicate yet antagonistic voice complementing the arrangement, while “Fish of a Feather” is more dynamic and dramatic, with the rest of the band providing a solid foundation on which Neale showcases some fancy playing.
The GCO is known for its cover versions, and its take on Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” doesn’t disappoint. It feels a bit slower than the original, and its bluegrass tinge, matched with Wright’s voice, gives it its own flavor. Really, its balance of faithfulness and newness exemplifies what all cover versions should be. Later on, “Swara Kakali” infuses a slight Middle Eastern vibe into a very appealing jam, and as its name implies, “Pickerwaddle” is an acoustic guitar composition filled with quick arpeggios, and percussive slaps, and occasional harmonics. It’s very engaging.
Along the same lines, “The Demented Waltz” is appropriately eccentric and twisted, while “Poison” proves to be the best song GCO has made thus far (chiefly because of how the arrangement shifts in intensity around the singing). Finally, “The Galactic Minion (Part 2)” ends the record on a warm but frantic note, with a fine balance of melodic appeal and virtuosic flourishes. There are some truly tricky moments here, so it stands as one of the finest examples yet of how skilled the quartet is.
All in all, Earth Lift is another exceptional release from The Galactic Cowboy Orchestra. Essentially, it maintains everything that’s worked so well so far while also focusing less on what didn’t work so well on Zombie Mouth. Considering the relatively short amount of time the band has been producing music, it’s remarkable that they’re able to churn out such inventive and refined albums so quickly. If you’ve yet to hear what the GCO can do, Earth Lift is a fine place to start.