(Harmonized Records, CD)
Let's get this out of the way right up front: Burlington rockers RAQ's latest, Ton These, is an eminently listenable album. The musicianship is great, perhaps flawless. Each of the 10 tunes is infectious. Unfortunately, the quartet still wears its influences on its sleeves; RAQ need to roll 'em up and get to work on establishing their own identity.
It was during the 2001-2003 Phish hiatus that I first saw RAQ perform live, and the similarities between the two bands were striking. It seemed that RAQ were attempting to fill a void, thereby amplifying the likeness. Now, with Phish permanently absent, the emulation continues.
To be fair, most bands from Burlington - or Vermont, for that matter - will face the comparison, regardless of genre. For a so-called "jam band," the scrutiny is that much greater.
But no matter how you slice it, RAQ has failed to emerge from Phish's tall shadow. Throughout Ton These, their famous predecessors are never far away, either sonically or lyrically.
Sure, Todd Stoops' keys on opener "Walking in Circles" sound more like Ben Folds than Page McConnell. But Chris Michetti's guitar licks are Trey all the way. And lines such as "Don't try to take my favorite monkey away / Don't ever walk six miles to the kitchen again" reminded me of early prose from Phish lyricist Tom Marshall.
The aping continues through the next three tracks. In fact, they sound like an almost chronological waltz through Phish-story. "Forget Me Not" recalls Rift; "Tumbling Down" could have been on Hoist; and "Glimpse" sounds like a late-model Trey ballad. I want to reiterate that these are good songs, but they need to bear more of RAQ's own imprint.
The good news is that, mid-album, the band begins to stand on its own feet. The tunes in this stretch display an attitude and edge missing from the album's first half. "Will Run" and "One of These Days" are gritty and urgent, while "City Funk," whether intentional or not, sounds like a hard-rockin' nod to Tupac and Dre's "California Dreaming."
The disc's highlight is "Bootch Magoo," a high-octane jam propelled by the powerful rhythm section. Over layers of Stoops' keys, Michetti finally sounds like his own axe-man rather than a capable disciple.
Sadly, Ton These closes with two cuts that threaten to undo the previous progress. "Said and Done" sounds like a couple of songs from Phish's Round Room squeezed together, while "Botz" is an I-can-only-hope-it's-intentional re-imagining of the Styx clunker "Mr. Roboto."
When they put their own stamp on a song instead of playing in somebody else's style, RAQ are a fine band indeed. I look forward to the day they cut a disc that fully reflects their own considerable strengths.