Michael Houser

Sandbox

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Sandbox, the posthumously released disc of earthy rock jams by former Widespread Panic frontman Michael Houser, drives home the devastation of his 2002 death, at age 40, from pancreatic cancer: these are beautifully written songs, to a one, that express a clear-eyed appreciation of the world that so often went whizzing by him out tour-bus windows. The music is as lived-in, faded, and welcoming as an old college buddy's couch, and Houser, despite his struggles with his illness toward the end of recording, never once hints at his discomfort. The title track is pure romance shot through with inspired guitar and mandolin breaks -- a signature Widespread Panic/Houser combination, and one that works so well because the music effectively cradles the mental doodles that came before it -- and a couple of later tracks stand out for their unapologetic countryness. "Bull Run" is a bittersweet breakup song that benefits from steel guitar and piano, and "Country Sex Song" brings on a batch of goofball mating metaphors. "Sex Song" is all Houser-style lightness, a good gag that'll get you through, and it's something Sandbox sorely needed: "Well I've said goodbye/To a lot of things in my life/But I never thought the day would come/When I would say goodbye my love," Houser sings on "Goodbye My Love." It's one of several songs that sting, given their context. Which Houser may have considered. "Roll on my monkey girl," he sings on "Nacoochee Queen," a later track. "The world is your pearl." He's sorry if he choked anybody up, he seems to be saying. He only wanted to say so long.

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