Michael League and the Snarky Puppy extended family are, musically, cruising at 38,000 feet with a supersonic tailwind after two Grammy wins, and Culcha Vulcha will keep their growing legion of fans happy as Larry. But maybe, in seeking the solace of the studio for their latest record, they’ve rubbed away a tiny bit of the musical sheen and spontaneity that is their u.s.p.
Don’t get me wrong. This is a great album, a true Snarky Puppy tour-de-musical-force which has brass brio, percussion by the tonne, licks-to-die-for on guitar and keyboards played to within an inch of their lives, all wrapped up in the grooviest of musical breads. I think, however, it just falls short of the stratospheric heights reached with previous albums Sylva and We Like It Here, both recorded in what has become the Snarky Puppy style with an audience and numerous videos to capture the creativity. That frisson of recording with audience amidships, along with sky-busting anthems, isn’t here, in what their own press material says is an album with a darker hued sound.
However, this is picking of the tiniest of nits. What you get with Culcha Vulcha is another broadside to the superstructure of popular music, showing ‘da kidz’ that there’s more to great popular (in its broadest sense) music than just tattoos and low-slung jeans: you need musicianship to last and these guys have it in spades.
Hybrid; mixture; fusion; pot pourri. Whatever you call Snarky Puppy’s approach to music, it’s damned entertaining. Opener Tarova is archetypal Snarky Puppy, with a curious mix of indian grooves and US funk the band has described as “First Bollywood Baptist” - the snazzy brass sounds of Maz Maher, Jay Jennings and Chris Bullock are shown to great effect on this opener which starts of at funk-mark 10 and gets hotter.
There is no overall sound theme to this album. For example, on third track Gemini, the darker edge referred to above comes across in a moody sub-Motown groove with unsettling slide guitar and layered vocal pads from Maz Maher which lacks that one-two punch of earlier tracks and sounds, frankly, un-Puppy like, particularly in its undramatic beat. Great track nonetheless, something of a surprise. Grown Folks jumps back to familiar territory - hunks of bass, huge percussion, and brass in unison - while Beep Box shifts again to the uncomfortable and unfamiliar, with a simple guitar line over a sparse bass and eerie keyboards.
Gø shows why Michael League is the hottest-to-trot bassist in jazz at the moment, as his thick, juicy bass line is cut through with the Puppy’s trade mark three-line brass whip on a track which recalls New York at its funkiest. Ninth track Big Ugly starts off at walking pace sounding like an eighties smooth soul throwback shot through with Mellotron undertones, but picks up in intensity as the brass kicks in a cinematic middle section which mutates into a storming violin solo from new ‘family’ member Zach Brock - think Jean-Luc Ponty on amphetamines. Cory Henry on this track swaps Hammond B-3 [The Revival, review] for Moog and analog synths to good effect, taking this track to the heights.
A real hodge-podge of sounds and grooves on this latest cut. It’s a fine record but maybe just that subtle shift towards the darker is, frankly, a little bit un-Puppy-ish. However, who am I to quibble: I haven’t won two Grammys in two years!