Funk

REVIEW: Khruangbin - Con Todo El Mundo

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Phillipe Roberts

For two records now, Khruangbin have delved deep into a brand of cosmic funk whose proudly professed global influences have stuck them with the loaded, woefully illogical “world music” label. Digressions on the validity of the term aside (why does the “world” start where the English speaking world ends?) the Houston-to-London trio is perhaps one of the few to actually embrace its universalist implications. Their Spotify account shouts their influences from the rooftops, touting “certified Persian bangers” and “heat from Nigeria, Ghana and more” in carefully curated playlists that connect the dots right back to their own work.

First album The Universe Smiles Upon You leaned heavily on '60s and '70s Thai funk and rock records, but on Con Todo El Mundo they absorb new influences, collecting musical passport stamps, mostly from Iran and Nigeria, with abandon. Some tracks highlight specific influences more than others, but overall, the blend is an unrecognizable and immensely satisfying hybrid. If a revamp of the Voyager Golden Record is ever in the works, with only enough room for a split single, Con Todo El Mundo will be a fitting starting point for extraterrestrials building an “Earth” mix.

No matter how you slice it, the Frankensound assembled by Khruangbin on Con Todo El Mundo is primarily funk. Bassist Laura Lee brings a radiant, chunky tone that clings loosely to the backbeat, powering the punchy shuffles of drummer Donald Johnson through the seemingly endless web of rhythmic scrapes and psychedelic slides dreamed up by guitarist Mark Speer. The three are a magnificent working band, and many of these tracks feel like they could go on forever, squeezing in and out of tight grooves like it’s nothing. Small instrumental flourishes and occasionally vocals enter the mix, particularly on “Evan Finds the Third Room,” but the focus never drifts away from the smooth cohesion they build into the jams. Over the course of the record, the effect is that of a perfectly sequenced funk DJ set.

While this tendency towards impeccable roundness may leave those hungry for the jagged edges of psychedelia a bit out in the cold, the trio do produce some standout moments that linger heavy on the mind long after the set comes to a close. The rapidfire acceleration into the initial pirouetting guitar riff on “Maria También” is mirrored brilliantly by the bass. Enough cannot be said about Laura Lee’s playing on this record; song after song, her warm melodies are a highlight, particularly on penultimate track “Rules,” where her weeping lines surge to the front with invigorating confidence, and “Evan Finds the Third Room,” a proper disco sendup with a bit of Donna Summer call-and-response thrown in. On the whole, however, Con Todo El Mundo is perfectly happy to hang back, playing to the room and allowing you to provide your own context—if instrumental doesn’t quite cut it, you might call it post-funk.

On the aforementioned “Shades of Man,” Khruangbin turns a field recording of two Iranian women working out how to pronounce their name into a skit, played out over ocean sounds. “You say that’s a K-H-R-U,” one woman’s voice cautiously begins. She shoots. “Crewangbin?” Light chuckles around the room. “Crungbin,” a voice corrects. Bless a band with a pronunciation guide.

Dead air. A long silence.

“No…”

And back into that effortless groove, punctuated by a repetitive, chanting “YES.”

REVIEW: Chicago Afrobeat Project - What Goes Up

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Laura Kerry

For the last 15 years, a varying group of musicians has met in Chicago lofts and studios to create around their shared love of Afrobeat music. Since 2012, Chicago Afrobeat Project (CAbP) has released four albums and developed a unique sound that combines West African beats, jazz instrumentation and melodies, and a range of elements from other genres, from funk to indie.

Inviting different members and artists to contribute and leave their mark as they please, CAbP runs as more of a collective than a rigid band, and their new release, What Goes Up, reflects this structure (or lack thereof). In ten songs, the album cycles through different voices, moods, and instrumentation, crediting almost 20 different artists—about half of whom are vocalists. As a result, though the bass, guitar, synth, and horn sections remain throughout, each song carries a different tone.

Unifying What Goes Up as much as the core members of the group is featured guest Tony Allen, who plays drums on every song. Allen is a legend, landing in the top third of Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” list and earning a number one spot in Brian Eno’s estimation. He helped create the fundamental beat in Afrobeat, playing with Fela Kuti for a decade in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s a big deal for one of the genre’s forefathers to join forces with one of its most interesting disciples. Both parties seem to revel in that, producing an exuberant album.

Staying true to Afrobeat, What Goes Up is founded on complex rhythms. Led by Allen, the album shifts around West African polyrhythms—multiple patterns of beats that work with and against each other. In “Cut the Infection,” a video game synth dances with the drum kit in one of the more traditional feeling songs; in “Must Come Down,” the vocals find their own space among a dark pulse of screeching electric guitar, animated horns, and jazzy percussion; and in “White Rhino,” the fluid swirl of brighter instruments contrasts with the rigid beat. Each track is wildly complex, but not so much so that the listener can’t automatically internalize their feeling and dynamic motion. Even when songs meander, leaning closer to jazz than the comforting structures of pop, they maintain their pulsating, lively grip.

Though the rhythms dominate, they do not detract from the album’s content. True to their legacy, CAbP often tackle political themes. Over an urgent rhythm and lofty horn accents, “Race Hustle” confronts the manifestations of racism. “I won’t apologize for the fear my skin puts in your eyes,” J.C. Brooks sings, his voice rising to a near breaking point as he cries, “No I won't just look the other way / While you murder me again today.” In “White Rhino,” Ugochi sings about the overwhelming presence of bad in the world, repeating the words “too much” before a series of ills—starvation, aggression, oppression. These are powerful messages, but CAbP is at their most powerful when they deliver their politics with specificity or a touch of whimsy. In “Marker 48,” for example, humanity’s destructive relationship with earth is staged as a breakup between a normal man and woman. The metaphor draws the listener in, provoking a little bit of a chuckle and even more thought.

What Goes Up delivers as a message, a work of music, and an ode to a genre. With Allen’s accompaniment, CAbP has created exactly what a tribute to Afrobeat or anything should be: It executes on the original but also evolves it, pushing it to new and intriguing places.

REVIEW: Post Moves - Boogie Night at the Edge of Town

Kelly Kirwan

Post Moves have a built a genre as you would a house of mirrors, with reflections stacked endlessly atop one another in an off-kilter maze, each element distorted into an uncanny counterpart. The Portland-based trio have described their sound as being in somewhat of an identity crisis by conventional standards—"What the hell is Americana, anyway?" they ask in their press release. Post Moves' style is a hybrid of experimental pop-rock, funk, and country that falls into the realm of “weirdo indie” (as they’ve coined it). Following their 2016 release, Mystery World Science Show, the three-man band has returned with Boogie Night at the Edge of Town, a title that feels like it's been drawn from a shelf of dusty '70s cult-film classics.

The album explores the human condition in a roundabout way, their lyrics poetic and often inclined towards philosophical musing. The opening track, "The Cavern," is filled with funk and vocals that feel like a smoothed-over stream of consciousness. The first verse is slightly rushed, as if the ideas were overflowing and had to spill out into the ether. The melody offsets any sense of apprehension that may come with ruminating on our life’s purpose, and it’s an easy groove to get into. The song takes a languid stretch in the center, asking wistfully, “What is our nature? / We fade more each time.”

The album features a little reprise at its halfway point with a roughly one-minute stretch of calming instrumentals titled, "With You, On Big Leaf Mountain." It’s a rich, gleaming melody, one that elicits feelings of contentment, its only vocals a background of ethereal, meditative ahs. The song seeps seamlessly into the delicate introduction of the following track, "Last Gasp," as a subtle melody emphasizes the opening line, “It won’t take long / I’ll clock it til it’s gone / The speed of light has never known the liking of this one.” Then we’re jolted into the next line, which hits like an exclamation point: “SO FAST, SO QUICK!” The four words leap with a bold-type intensity, evoking comparisons to spoken word. It a motif you hear throughout "Last Gasp," a song that revels in idiosyncratic flair.

Boogie Night at the Edge of Town lives up to its name. It’s a curious, foot-tapping compilation of songs that exists on the outskirts of any easily recognizable genre—or, as the band might say, “Post Moves make Americana about an America that makes no sense; pastoral, shambling and strange.” And yet, “strange” has never felt more accessible. Sometimes it's good to revel in a little oddity.

REVIEW: New Venusians - New Venusians

Laura Kerry

Sydney, Australia–based New Venusians has three jazz musicians at its core. Ben Panucci (founding member and the band’s guitarist) studied jazz with Andrew Bruce and Harry Sutherland (now the band’s synth players) at the Conservatory of Music in Sydney, and after meeting Christian Hemara and Meklit Kibret around the local music scene, the two singers’ voices were enough to push the musicians into the fluid realm of neo-soul. After adding two drummers, Jan Bangma and Tully Ryan, to mix, the New Venusians formula was complete.

Though the seven members have impressive resumes—including touring and session musician gigs with Chet Faker and Ngaiire, among others—their only previous release as New Venusians came in 2015, with the single “Keep Running.” Their self-titled debut is proving worth the wait.

New Venusians is a detailed and clever album that covers a large territory of genres, sounds, and moods. Though “neo-soul” is a convenient way to describe a work that contains many soulful melodies and slow but pronounced beats, the album refuses to conform to just one description. Some tracks drift further towards funk (“Keep Running...And Running”), some are more straightforwardly poppy (“Get Along”), and others represent the band’s jazz roots more faithfully (“I Wanna”).

Part of the difficulty of classification (a happy challenge, of course), is that even within well-crafted, cohesive songs, genres shift. In a couple of instances, they shift dramatically; in “Game Change,” for example, a break halfway through signals a move into a spacier, more abstracted version of what came before, and in “Keep Running...And Running,” a moment of silence towards the end leads to a completely different tone guided by a simple but hypnotizing guitar riff. In other songs, though, the mashups are more subtle. Jazzy seventh chords brush against funky basslines and ‘80s pop synths; dance beats underlie slow and soulful vocals; and psychedelic reveries conspire with earthy harmonies and earnest lyrics.  

One of the surprises on an album with such carefully calibrated nuances is the straightforwardness of the lyrics. While the instrumentals are often spacey and free-flowing, the stories they support are direct and of-this-world. “If you're willing to change / Then I will change,” Kibret sings on “Game Change”; “Has anything changed? / Still feel like I’m drowning in your arms,” Hermara sadly confesses in “Sea”; and in “I Wanna,” he expresses impatience with, “I’m swimming in the warmth of your mood / But we're still hesitating.” In an album of sliding sounds, the lyrics provide a graspable entryway.     

Above all, though, the lyrics allow focus to point elsewhere, to the range of meticulous sounds on the album. On the final song, “Here’s Hoping,” the listener can focus on the intimate soulfulness of Kibret’s voice as it skates through interesting phrases. In “I Wanna,” there’s space to spend time with the bright and inviting tone of the guitar, “Game Change” leaves enough room to wonder whether the harmony set against the vocal melody is guitar so warm it mimics the singer’s voice, and in “T.S. I Love You,” there’s time to sit with the tension contained in the sprawling arpeggios. The result of melding three jazz musicians, two soulful singers, and two drummers, New Venusians celebrates the sheer pleasure of sounds and the vibrant formations they can create together.

REVIEW: Landlady - The World Is A Loud Place

Kelly Kirwan

Lush.

As far as descriptions go, this was damn-near reflexive. With one glance at Landlady’s latest cover art, my mind whirred with sensory overstimulation; it was a lavish, brightly colored, geometric portrait with a somewhat Dia-de-los-Muertos aesthetic, hypnotically animated. And as I made my way through the twelve tracks that comprise The World Is A Loud Place, I found that each song was paired with its own stunning visuals. These weren’t just adornments, they were reflections of Landlady’s rich sonic arrangements.

The Brooklyn-based quintet enlisted artist Jesse Jacobs to immerse us in the ornate landscape that is their latest LP. And, as usual, they’ve stretched the confines of genre with a little funk accented by a string section, and a few jazz fundamentals draped under a psychedelic haze. Perhaps that’s why the band has succinctly described their sound as “surprise.”

For those that may be unfamiliar, at the center of the spinning color wheel that is Landlady we have Adam Schatz, a musical chameleon who floats between instruments, bands, and musical styles with virtuosic ease. And, of course, he’s in good company. Nearly all his bandmates lend their voices and know their way around more than one instrument, and this passion for music is palpable in every note.

The song “Cadaver” opens with a cloud of reverb, their guitar lines becoming frayed with a fuzz that threatens to deteriorate into a flatline. But then it bursts into a melody that bops along with a sunny tint, and we’re tethered to Schatz's unique tone, “Can’t be accused of resting your eyes ... Cadaver how can I know you for sure?”

As Schatz dives deeper into the lyrics, his voice starts to catch mid-word as if he were trying to memorize the rhyme, his pitch rising and falling ever so slightly in tightly-packed peaks and valleys. “Dotted line teach me how you’re organized,” he sings, methodically pouring over the metaphorical cadaver for clues on life, hoping these tiny facts will spark a realization—or, as his recurring line invokes, “Oh, come alive.”

Then there’s the title track, which begins with a piano accompaniment and a slightly subdued, throaty timbre from Schatz. It’s a song that feels like warped jazz, the tang of an organ melody accompanied by quick interjections of seemingly improvised percussion—which is not to imply any sort of sloppiness. Landlady are acutely aware of what they’re building into: a pleasing cacophony, a free-for-all, a multi-sensory shot to our nervous system. It’s a song that realizes the album's titular theme, but Landlady have found their own frequency within it. Their songs are intricate and eclectic, and have a way of canceling out the background noise of our day-to-day.