mid-1990s, there has been a slow but definite resurgence in, for lack of a
better term, 'organic music' or what the ol' timers once called 'Soul Food'. It
is a bit ironic but not really surprising that after years of aseptic digital
and Auto-Tune 'perfection', we humans - or at least an ever growing minority,
strive to re-appropriate the vitality and raw energy of the past, warts and all.
After a 'dearth' of earthy acoustic output beginning in the mid-1970s and
intensifying in the following decades; soul, funk and afrobeat are making a
strong comeback in our ever expanding musical universe, thanks in no small part
to the powers of the unbounded web, international music festivals and some
dedicated and talented artists. Extrapolating we can even make a parallel with
the return of tubes in general, SETs in particular and the wider spread of the
vinyl LP's comeback; coincidentally or not within the same time period.
Fusing the strengths of West African highlife and Yoruba music with American funk and jazz; afrobeat rose to prominence in the late 1960s only to fall out of favor - at least on this continent - with the rise of disco of which the latter drew inspiration via Camaroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango's visionary "Soul Makossa" (1972, Fiesta). But the socio-politico polyrhythms continued flourishing in their native land by way of pioneer Fela Kuti while later passing the torch to his son Femi. Just as James Brown was pivotal in the development of funk and used his black power to - at times - transmit political messages, so was Kuti through afrobeat. More recently this flame has kept on burning by groups like Brooklyn's Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, Montreal's Afrodizz and Berkeley's Albino! Such is also the case with Staten Island New York's The Budos Band, a twelve member unit bringing back the sunny sounds of afrobeat with a sprinkling ray of soul thrown in for good measure - which explains their preference for the term 'afro-soul'. This is in fact their fourth release on Daptone Records (not counting a few 7" singles). Brooklyn-based Daptone - formerly Desco - is one of the leading conduits of this 'organic renewal'. Since 2002, through means of an indie label and all-analog studio, house engineer Gabriel Roth and partner/musician Neal Sugarman have poured heart, mind and savings in this 'family-oriented' approach to making music.
Indeed this last point is what makes Daptone truly stand out among the two opposing directions the music business has taken since the turn of this century. Nowadays either you are signed to a major and they provide state of the art 72-track analog and 'near infinite'-track '24/192 digital' with all the famous mikes at your disposal or... you keep your independence taking the DIY route with your trusty '58 and all the free plug-ins in the world dumping it on your portable workstation in your basement. As with anything, results may vary. Daptone kind of takes the middle ground or rather the 'retro way'; bearing some resemblance to the way Stax-Volt and others were doing things circa 1967-70. Like the music that inspired them and continues to vibrate in the old 'House of Soul' in the Bushwick neighbourhood, the musicians and singers are captured 'live' with little overdub in a minimalist - though not audiophile purist - way with a mike or two per instrument; nothing esoteric but an assortment of old dynamics and a few newer condensers to experiment with. Tracking is either done on an 8-track half-inch Otari or 16-track Tascam tape deck. The Trident 24-track input mixing desk is then bounced and sent to either a restored 3M or an old Otari quarter-inch 2-track. Modern outboard tube compressors and EQs mixed in with some vintage Altec plus Orban spring reverbs share processing duties. Many of their recordings are released both on vinyl and CD.
Not having the vinyl, I'll limit my evaluation to
the CD version. The modest gatefold cardboard jacket is mostly two-toned with
credits listed on the front inside. The CD underside displays twenty of the
artist's album covers signed to the label. The back side cover lists the eleven
songs. Recorded to 16-track analog by chief engineer Gabriel Roth with chief
tape operator Wayne Gordon and mastered by Steve Berson.
Musically things get off to a good start with "Rite of the Ancients" opening the album in an early 1970s style. Such is not automatically the case sonic-wise. Indeed the sound is compressed leaving the horns thin sounding, lacking 'grunt' in the low-mids around 250 to 600 Hz. Compounding the problem, the whole horn section but especially Jared Tankel's baritone sax is recorded way too far with too much reverb producing a distant emasculated sound for such a powerful 'barking' blattiness in real life. For this type of music and most jazz and funk, the baritone or tenor sax are the foundation of the horn section and because of the ears natural lower sensitivity in that region compared to the upper-mid 'presence' region - where the alto, soprano, trumpet and flute shine through - it is preferable to mike the former up close and 'dry' and backed-up by the bass and drum. Speaking of which, the latter two are on the anemic side also. On a more positive note the percussion sounds and Thomas Brenneck's guitar are fairly clean and tastefully balanced in the mix. All this aside, it remains a solid opener.
Bass, guitar and Mike Deller's electric organ leads a psychedelic intro into "Black Venom". This follows with a mix of drums, congas and shekere establishing a tribal-esque groove underlying tight Middle Eastern-influenced horns, making a nice blend of brass and woodwinds. Still lacking 'grunt', they are slightly less compressed yet still too much. Trumpet 'blowing' turns funkier. About halfway into the piece, the low end suddenly appears - as if 'punched in' on the board - bringing a better tonal balance; too bad it was not present since the beginning of the track or the album for that matter. Equally as excellent music-wise as the opening track.
"River Serpentine" captures the attention with superb majestical cymbal-leading chord changes in the intro. Persuing with slightly panned horns; better 'grunt' in baritone sax. Percussive sounds are clearer also; Vincent Balestrino and Dame Rodriguez add 'color' to the rhythmic groove pattern on shekere and clave, respectively. Deller's melodic organ playing delights over a smooth vibe reminiscent of MFSB's "Love is the Message" (1973, Philadelphia International) and other Gamble-Huff / Vincent Montana, Jr. collaborations. A bit of improvement in the bottom octave but barely. How unfortunate the piece fades out just when the melodic structure was taking a new interesting direction. As if a 'Part-2' was awaiting us on the B-side of a seven-inch single; strange.
"Unbroken, Unshaven" has Thomas Brenneck on guitar up front plus a groovy rhythm section backing him from the get-go. Rodriguez's tambourine is on the left bringing a mid-1970s 'Sunshine' disco sound. The horns come in a bit saturated and 'squashed' on the tape producing mild but distinct distortion. At the other end of the spectrum, bottom is not bad. Structurally, organ soloes first, followed second by Tankel's exciting baritone sax blowing - a shame that he's almost 'lost' in the mix because of recording engineer Gabriel Roth emphasizing reverb over proximity, intimacy and boldness - with organ 'comping'. Once again, superb groove but just when 'getting into it', premature fadeout makes it sound like a 'CD sampler'.
"Nature's Wrath" changes the pace and
ambience with an intro presenting a 'crescendo-reverbed' trumpet trill in left
field shortly joined by baritone sax on the right. Drum, bass and
tremolo-augmented guitar establish a slow tempo 6/8 blues. At last, kick, snare
and hi-hat come out stronger in the mix; still a bit veiled and muted in
harmonics though well balanced for the meditative mood. Middle
Eastern-influenced horn playing, at times majestic, at times 'punchy',
eventually ceding spotlight to Daisy Sugarman's flute solo. Before long, horns
gradually make a 'crescendoed'-comeback taking over anew. As the piece
progresses, the main 'looped' bass/guitar riff becomes hypnotic, having a
calming effect. The coda has the trumpet reverberate towards centre-left field.
While not outstanding, this is probably the most dynamic, less squashed and
saturated track of the album; thus the best sounding one.
"Golden Dunes" sets the pace with a
faster 4/4 'feel'. Four-bar intro comprising bass, guitar+tremolo and metronomic
cowbell are followed by Arabic tinged horn riffs and 1960s-styled trebly organ,
both flirting with dissonance. The rhythm is almost disco. Too bad the horns and
organ are quite compressed.
"Budos Dirge" has panned horns with
trumpet occupying center-left while baritone sax takes center-right. Snare hit
initiates rhythm; drums, congas and bass make for an instantly captivating hook
recalling some percussive-oriented disco around 1977. There is some brief
intense dissonant brass 'punches'. Sound is more compressed than other tracks,
producing a thinner more fatiguing balance. Another premature fadeout
Solo bass plus guitar greet "Raja Haje"
soon to be accompanied by clave, shekere and horns in this mildly-fast 3/4
"Crimson Skies" repeats the above
pattern in structure and instrumentation augmented by the organ. Horns play in
unison. Repetitive but interspersed with brief R&B punchy drum fills. Horns
a bit too compressed.
"Mark of the Unamed" is more middy and
compressed. The backbone rhythm is a cross between the Bar-Kays, The Meters and
Booker T. & the M.G's. Midway there is an interesting change of direction.
The first run has the bass, guitar, conga, shekere and later baritone sax
grooving all along. On the second run, the organ rules 'til the horns make a
strong punchy comeback. Saturating a bit in the mix because of the heavy
compression, they induce listener fatigue in the end. This is probably the worse
sounding track of the album.
"Reppirt Yad" is you guessed it: The
Beatles' "Day Tripper" inverted. Taken at a slower pace and darker
mood with a bit of 'ghostly' vocals and tambourine like the original featured.
Although not bad, it seems a bit 'filler-up' material. I would have left it off
the album, instead reducing the numerous unnecessary fadeouts. The compositional
skills of the band are impressive enough to keep it an 'all-original' album.
Finally I examined the shape of the waveform from
start to finish and based on the numerous amplitude gradations and the overall
medium loudness level, it seems that mastering engineer Steve Berson did not use
or 'abuse' the limiter or level maximizer like the norm these days. So the
compression and harshness noted in the horns must emanate from earlier in the
chain, either at the tracking or mixing stage or a combination of both. I then
performed a spectrum analysis on every track to give further insight into the
problem and my sound perceptions were confirmed by an excess of energy in the
upper mids / lower treble roughly spanning the 2 kHz to 6 kHz plus a lack of
energy at the other end of the bandwidth under 60 Hz.
This goes on a long way explaining why this musically awesome album unnecessarily suffers from some important sound compromises. There is this trend lately that certain producers and engineers want to give a 'vintage sound' to a mix, often by rolling off both the low and high end and squashing the life out of a band. To add insult to injury - but surely with good intent - they embrace the advantages of everything analog. Don't get me wrong I love Analog! and have always defended it, even when most everybody was ready to put it to the grave. But I saw this happen in a big way with Arcade Fire's The Suburbs and see it happen all too often. And it is really sad.
Listen to some classic Manu Dibango from the
1970s on Fiesta or Isaac Hayes' Theme From
Shaft Soundtrack on Stax/Enterprise or The J.B.'s on People or James
Brown's "Body Heat" or Monk's Brilliant
Corners or Monk's Music on
Riverside or Sonny Rollins' Way Out West on
Contemporary and you will hear how a baritone sax, how a tenor, how horns can
sound so raw, so powerful, so beautiful and how Analog can be incredible WHEN
you use the right mikes and vision.
The Budos Band merit all the praise they can get and it must be great to experience them live but on CD - and the vinyl can't be that far off - they are a bit 'shortchanged'. I'm sure the gang at Daptone have their heart at the right place and you cannot feel but admiration, for people who put their talents and hard earned cash in a 'return to the days when real musicians played on real instruments' and on top of that, support analog and vinyl. Like Booker T. and "Green Onions", let's hope they tinker with the ingredients and perfect the recipe.
Sound Quality: (at most)