ALBUM REVIEW Crossing Party Lines
Snarky Puppy is a Mix of Thoughtful and Funky
Bring Us the Bright
Performed at Killian Hall
October 23, 2008
We all love to be wordly. Shuffle through your friends’ facebook pages, and you’ll no doubt find a slew of open-minded comrades summarizing their musical preferences as “everything.” That is, everything by the Shins. Or, alternatively, Shostakovich.
I admit, it’s hard to cross musical party lines. After listening to a group or a song for a while, one becomes attuned to its particular message, its particular mode of expression. Lots of songs might sing about love, for instance, but each has a unique way of coloring it. We get accustomed to extracting emotion from music in a certain way, and, as with learning a language, we assign one genre primary status. Sure, I took Spanish in high school. No, I never try to watch Univisión.
So it’s a nice pleasure when we come upon music that crosses party lines for us. Billing itself as a jazz-funk-experimental group from Denton, Texas, Snarky Puppy bridges into reggae, ska, progressive, electronic, and even klezmer. On their webpage, the band says, “It’s like a party, but deep. It’s a deep party.” And it’s true. Their music is both thought-provoking and funky. When listening, you don’t have to sacrifice groove for emotional integrity. This is mind-expanding stuff, but without all the auditory pain associated with much of the avant-garde scene.
Their latest album, “Bring Us the Bright,” has no holes in it. The title track is a effervescent jaunt with an electro-Latin feel. Entrancing guitar work from Chris McQueen on the acoustic. While a largely instrumental group, the select use of vocal as a form of accompaniment gives the track a very relaxed flavor.
The second track, “Loose Screws,” is a solid chaser, and the perfect remedy for all the listeners who needed no more than one 4/4 track. Composed and arranged by drummer Robert “Sput” Searight, Screws is a highly syncopated. Oscillating between Latin (including a brief vocal solo — the only on the album with real words), funk, and electronica, the chart has Zornian genre-swapping without without any anarchic anti-transitions. Sure, you can’t count the rhythm, but you foot still wants to keep tapping. Includes a face-melting solos from saxophonist Chris Bullock and organist Bobby Sparks.
“Strawman” is more face-melting funk/electronica. In 5/4. ’Nuff said. Bass line may cause defibrillation.
Most interesting track on the set might be “34 Klezma.” As its name implies, the tune is strongly imitative of a klezmer bulgar. Guest string section captures an Old World feel while still imbuing the tune with a New World freshness. Intense development and release, moving between heart-rending minimalism and mind-bending harmonic richness and rhythmic intensity. It’s like Fiddler on the Roof, except the roof’s on fire.
“Strange Dream” is also pretty eponymous. Moog synth used heavily by Bobby Sparks on this one. Very floating feel — the loving, friendly side of psychedelia. Smooth, without being smooth jazz.
The sixth track, “Celebrity,” is without doubt the catchiest tune on the album, with a chilling compound rhythm on keys laid over a pounding bass line. The same riff (it will get stuck in your head) is passed throughout the band in the song, lending a unified, highly listenable quality to the piece. Perfect night-driving music.
“Making the Circle” is more syncopated intensity, with more start-stop action and heavy bass ostinato. Keeps you on you toes.
“And Soon We’ll Be One,” has the same drive as the rest of the album, but with just a bit more end-of-album finality.
So, for all the listeners out there who are tired of having to choose between thinking and partying, let there be Snarky Puppy. “Bring Us the Bright” is a solid effort on behalf of this relatively recent group, and let’s hope they continue to bring us more and more of their fresh sound.