Widespread Panic Space Wrangler- 1988
Album Rating- 7 (Excellent)
If you attended college in the 90’s, then you certainly know this album note for note (whether you owned it or not) because it seemed to be playing everywhere you went.
Space Wrangler is the debut album by Widespread Panic. I also think it is their best studio album. Houser is definitely on his game here, and he definitely sounds energized. All in all, the arrangements, the playing, and the singing are all on point. The only thing missing here are keyboards. Does Lavitz even play? Are his keys even plugged in? It’s the same thing on the next album as well, and then we finally get Jo Jo on Everyday. So, in terms of instrumentation, my only real complaint is that all the songs would benefit from a serious keyboard injection.
In terms of songs, you can really divide the album in thirds, or three parts:
Part#1: “Chilly Water” – “Coconut”
“Chilly Water” is a perfect opener. It’s arguably Houser’s best performance on the album, and compared to the other early upbeat Widespread songs in its class (which include “Walkin’,” “Pigeons,” “Pleas,” “Wondering” and “Diner’), it is by far the best. “Travelling Light” is a fitting cover tune, and I will say that I normally like Widespread’s choices in cover songs. “Space Wrangler” is up next, and it is definitely the best song from the first part of the album. It has a multi-part structure that keeps it interesting through its 7-minute run-time, and it explores themes of misplaced childhood, which Bell would continue to explore on “C-Brown” and “Heroes” from Widespread Panic and Ain’t Life Grand. “Coconut,” on the other hand, doesn’t fit the context of the rest of the album, and it simply should have been left off.
Part#2: “The Take Out” – “Holden Oversoul”
The second part of the record contains the best music on the album, and it is near perfect. If Widespread had taken the sound of these songs and made it their signature sound, they would be a much better band. These 5 songs (“The Take Out,” “Porch Song,” “Stop-Go,” “Driving Song,” and “Holden Oversoul”) form a 20+ minute song sequence that flows together seamlessly. Every instrument sounds very organic, and they combine elements of electric, acoustic, and even some fiddle on “The Take Out,” and Bell’s vocals fit perfectly. Plus, we actually get to hear some keyboards on “Holden Oversoul,” but they’re performed by Page McConnell from Phish (again, where is Lavitz?). The whole sequence is absolutely done to perfection.
Part#3: “Contentment Blues – “Me and the Devil Blues>Heaven”
The final third of the album starts with “Contentment Blues,” which is simply embarrassing. After the southern jam perfection of the middle half of the album, Widespread gives us a song about chicken, and the chorus of the song is “Oh my Chicken tastes good.” I just don’t get it.
Then there’s “Gomero Blanco,” which is a spacy psychedelic number that doesn’t really fit the tone of the album, but it doesn’t bother me, and I don’t mind its inclusion.
Lastly there’s the 15-minute cover of “Me and the Devil Blues> Heaven.” The first half was written by the 1930’s blues legend Robert Johnson, and “Heaven” is a Talking Heads cover. This was recorded as a one-take, live in the studio number, and it is impressive. I have to hand it to Bell. His juxtaposition of the first and second half of the song (Devil Vs. Heaven) is a stroke of genius. The first half is about Johnson’s alleged deal with the devil (the legend states that Johnson sold his soul to the devil for his blues guitar ability). The second half of the song is about David Byrne’s account of Heaven. The juxtaposition is interesting because Byrne’s lyrics to “Heaven” are very open ended (and the song’s meaning is vehemently argued by Talking Heads fans), so whether Bell intended it or not, he compared and contrasted two songs that might have very similar meanings or very different meanings. Aside from song’s meaning, the music is engaging as well. They cover “Devil” for the first 6-minutes, then jam for about 5 minutes, then seamlessly transition into “Heaven.” Bell’s vocals are a perfect fit for the bluesy first half of the song, and his vocals on “Heaven” have grown on me. So, with the exception of “Contentment,” the final third of the album is excellent as well.
In short, if you want to get into Widespread’s studio albums, start here. This is their crowing studio achievement.
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