Snug Harbour (label)
22 December 2017 (released)
15 January 2018
In the first half of this decade, Daptone Records was flying high. Bolstered by their two later-in-life rising stars, Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, the label was able to forge an identity unlike labels had since the days of Motown, Stax, and Chess. Nowadays, labels, for the most part, are whales of companies, large catch-alls with labelmates having little to no affiliation besides the logo on the bottom corner of their album. Daptone was different. You knew that if you dug into one of their acts, that you were getting a fresh take on old soul music. Jones and Bradley sparked a renaissance that brought soul music into the lives of millions of 20 and 30 somethings. Then within less than a year, they were both gone. Cancers tragically took them both but the love for their earnest music backed by powerhouse bands with punchy brass sections and 'take me to church' organ remained in the hearts of a generation.
The latest release from Oakland outfit Idiot Grins is a powerhouse collection that sits at the heart of the American soul. State of Health features primarily funk-infused, horn-backed soul songs that showcase Tower of Power and Huey Lewis and the News horn masters Johnnie Bamont and Mic Gillette as well as the enigmatic Byrd Sisters. The trio of dynamic vocalists take a commanding role in the songs, taking the cues of a traditional Motown backing troupe but they have such a compelling presence that they end up taking the bill of co-headliners with vocalist John Hansen. The combination makes for an unstoppable harmonic force.
That unmistakable chuka-chuka of wah pedal guitar leads the album off to let you know things are about to get funky. Organ, horns and the coos of the Byrd Sisters lay down a sizzling foundation for Hansen to belt out the hearty yet snide refrain of 'Get Busy Dying'. The funk flows through to the following 'Frock' which amps up the funk with that classic brassy synth. A verbbed-out Byrd Sister's oohs take you right to a seedy, foggy New York street corner in the sleazy 70s. You can just imagine the horn section hitting their stabs while doing energetic side-steps while the Byrd Sisters lay some irresistible earworm vocals under Hansen's lead. This record begs to be witnessed live.
Later album tracks like 'Dream' drop the funk/soul groove for a Springsteen-style of Americana. Hansen's voice takes on an added rasp, the rhythm section's downbeat sinks into that 2 and 4 groove. The horn section swaps out the stabs for anthemic fanfare while saxophonist Johnnie Bamont belts out a rippin' solo lick that would do Clarence Clemons proud. The song feels like a page out of the E-Street Band songbook, a sister song to 'Born to Run'. 'Mama's Tears' goes fully western with a sleepy country ballad complete with lap steel and the Byrd Sisters taking on the sweet farmer's maid role.
Although State of Health flows from funk and soul through to old southern country and western, the paradigm of the all-American revue show pervades the whole record, tying it all together. The band is sizzling when they need to crank up the heat and tasteful on the delicate numbers. Hansen and the sisters do a fantastic job of sharing the fore. The three women really are a commanding force and one that lifts the album from good to great. This album would be a treat live.