Reviews April 30, 2012
It can be hard to figure out what separates a good funk band from a great funk band. In theory, the basic components for funk perfection are obvious. You take one trebly guitar, one fleet-fingered bass player, one yelping/preening/crooning singer, and one hell of a drummer, mix them all together, take them with a beer (or two), and then call everybody you know in the morning yelling about how you got DOWN last night. But as every high school jazz band jamming on a Chick Corea tune knows, it isn’t that easy. A band needs to do more than just groove; they need to dig in, to transform what is all too often an exercise in repetition into a full-on rhythmic exploration. Alternately, they can also settle on sounding like the perfect combination of low-rider era War, Sly and the Family Stone, and Santana (plus the horns of a tight Latin orchestra). On the new album Oozy from Brownout, the veteran Austin band manages to do some of the former, and whole truckload of the latter. As you might be able to guess from the influences listed above, Brownout specializes in particularly Latin variety of funk. As a result, their basic rhythmic drive substantially differs from the traditional funk groove, slowing its manic density to let it hang loose for the long haul. Rather than building to an uncontainable explosion, Brownout let the groove ride slowly, utterly content with its languid shuffle. Although they use few of its sonic elements, this general looseness cannot help but be reminiscent of other trans-cultural musics from Texas/Mexico, the best of which tend to contain a similarly relaxed orientation towards rhythmic intensity, one apparent at even the highest of tempos. As you might also be able guess from the quality of the influences listed above, the group totally succeeds in bringing the old-school fire. Yet, in a stylistic triumph, Oozy avoids sounding like a mere historical recreation. With a set of songs abounding in both solid hooks and myriad ear catching details (check, for instance, the tiny backing vocals floating through the mix of “Stormy Weather”), the album feels both new and familiar, something similar to the experience of hearing a favorite record that you haven’t listened to for so long that you forgot it even existed. It’s hard to say what has allowed Brownout to succeed where so many funk groups end up stuck in cruise-ship jam land. For one, although the level of playing is impeccable throughout the album, it’s also restrained in a way that is all too rare. This band has chops, knows it, and for that reason doesn’t need to share the fact obsessively; the players only show off their skills when the song absolutely demands it. For another, the production is wonderful- warm and detailed, with a sonic palette that varies from song to song. This production shines a particularly fine light on the supple arrangements of the horn section, the tones of which occupy center stage for many of these tracks. Ultimately, this is an album where the songs- not the singer, not the guitar player, not the groove- dominate. That’s what really sets Oozy apart, and explains why it works as well as it does. And why I cannot wait to listen to it again this summer, in my car, with the bass up and the windows down. Click to here to hear Brownout get down Dub-style.