The Tea Party


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The Tea Party have taken their fair share of bruises over the years from the perennial criticisms that they are really nothing more than lukewarm derivatives; however, in some ways, they have admittedly brought such derogatory remarks and comparisons on themselves. On Splendor Solis, the band converged at an obvious musical fondness for Led Zeppelin and lyrical affection for the poetic musings of Jim Morrison; the end result was an album with a very earthy, mystical feel, and while the careful ear could soon ferret out qualities of distinction between teacher and student after several listens, many critics never got past the bowed guitar lines of "Save Me" before denouncing them altogether. For The Edges Of Twilight, the band took their interests in world music -- particularly through genuine eastern instruments - further and higher than even Page himself had ever attempted, but with advents into British folk and the blues, and worse yet, with parts of "Fire In The Head" sounding reasonably similar to "Kashmir," copycat cries resurfaced yet again, and the band still seemed unable to fully attain the respect one can only imagine of which they felt deprived (and rightfully deserved); things were not helped much by the fact that Martin had a striking vocal similarity to Morrison at times. Finally, the trio suddenly turned 180 degrees and sped away into an entirely new direction on 1997's Transmission by once again shedding the skin of past procedure to make room for heavy bouts of Nine Inch Nails-style, industrial electronica (yet, without sacrificing the touchstones of their identity); for once, there were no more glib analogies and most agreed that the Tea Party's time had come, but the surprising course they had set for themselves left the unanswered question of "where will they go next?" hanging in midair -- would they follow the tide of this latest fascination or would there be something of a return to form? Then, in 1999, the Tea Party released Triptych. If Transmission was the unrepentant clamor of a band on the run, then Triptych is the sound of a band standing its ground; it is the audible sonic concentrate of everything they have previously accomplished, and yet, it is so much more. Songs like "The Halcyon Days" (probably the best hard-rocking number here) and "Samsara" harken back to Edges, and yet, the entire album is inconspicuously lit throughout with a definite electronic iridescence that now covets even the slightest of corners in their music to rich effect. Unlike Transmission, the marriage here is seamless, and although nothing on Triptych can match the orchestral ornament of Edges or the adventurous liberties taken on Transmission, Martin and the band have never sounded more confident or self-assured as they do on these twelve songs; they no longer have anything to prove to anybody and they know it. As usual, the songwriting is a first-rate study in both melody and content from the singles (the band's immensely gorgeous hit "Heaven Coming Down," and "The Messenger," a cover of a song written by wunderkind producer/songwriter Daniel Lanois) right down through the choice album cuts (the unsatisfied longing of "Underground" and heartbreaking beauty of "Taking Me Away" being the best examples of these), but the last half does have a few songs that, while being decent, don't seem quite as memorable as what one usually expects from a Tea Party album. Martin still has a tendency to occasionally skirt the borders of lyrical pretentiousness -- due mostly to the sweeping, high-concept nature of his subject matter -- but there is no denying his gift for graceful flights of poetry when he is given the proper length of runway, and as they say, where great steps are taken, a few great missteps will always be made. Triptych may not be the Tea Party's best overall album, but it is just as satisfying in its own way and will probably be best viewed in hindsight as the point upon which the band took stock of itself and finally seemed to have assimilated the numerous tangents (an explanation for the title of their subsequent "greatest hits" collection) they explored during their first decade together; there are no answers here pertaining to their next direction, but with a band as spirited as the Tea Party, perhaps there are no such answers as these in the first place.

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