In some ways, the career of legendary soul singer Charles Bradley was like that of a 27 Club member. Although the Screaming Eagle began his professional solo career late at 62, his time in the spotlight was more burn out than fade away. He released his unstoppable debut No Time For Dreaming in 2011 and by 2017 he was gone. In that short window, he was able to release three albums and touch millions with his powerhouse voice and an authenticity that was beyond reproach. His live performances were equally impressive, harnessing his many years as a James Brown impersonator to entertain audiences with every move he could pull. Bradley was destined to have his time in the spotlight but it wouldn’t have had nearly the impact that it did without sensational music backing him up. Similar to Amy Winehouse, Bradley’s backing band took a classic beloved genre and gave it a hip makeover for the new millennium.
That band was the Menahan Street Band. The group formed in 2007 in Bushwick, Brooklyn (in an apartment on Menahan Street) from members of Sharon Jones’ Dap-Kings, The Budos Band, Antibalas, and the El Michaels Affair. These groups came from the tightly-knit Daptone Records family and were hired to score the new darling of the label’s debut record, Charles Bradley’s No Time For Dreaming. In addition to their work with the Eagle, the Menahan Street Band released two studio albums, Make the Road by Walking and The Crossing. Both of these instrumental albums were tapped extensively for samples in hip-hop from Jay-Z to Kid Cudi, 50 Cent to Kendrick Lamar. It’s no wonder, the band’s sound is a fusion of all the best soul, funk, and afrobeat that has fuelled hip-hop for the last four decades. After a hiatus of nearly a decade, the band is back!
The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band rejoins our funk crusaders leaning into their silky smooth side. The album runs the gamut from danger and intrigue to comfortably tucked in at home, from moments of quiet reflection in solitude to romantic movements to be shared. The album’s 14 tracks run a scant 38 minutes. The songs are brief vignettes that flow into one another seamlessly. A great vinyl to slap on for a night in or as the soundtrack in the back of a hip lounge. The MSB relies on their signature combo of velvety stacked horns, round plucky bass, glimmering guitar, and snappy yet subtle drumming but they’ve thrown in a few textural surprises to keep it interesting.
The opener ‘Midnight Morning’ was one of several teased over the past year. Smoothly cascading keyboards and tremolo guitar welcome you in with a classic nostalgic mood joined intermittently by the horns optimistic fanfare. ‘Rainy Day Lady’ saunters lazily on the steady slapback of guitar, the light plodding of bass, and a precipitous piano. ‘The Starchaser’ plays the role of ’60s style Bond theme. Curious organ and a devilishly descending guitar line are punctuated by the driving bongo rhythms. A spy thriller score if there ever was one.
‘Cabin Fever’, a state we’ve all been living through this year, gets a little weird with upward whirring synths that are half West Coast G-Funk and half Dr. Who. The 70s funk is laid on thick with Funkadelic-inspired percussion and an air-tight rhythm section. At a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 1:08, ‘Queens Highway’ doesn’t have a ton of time to make its point. However, the early released gem finds its target and jams on a vibe that defines the essence of the Menahan Street Band. Cool, suave, intriguing. With horns spread out like hot butter.
‘Stepping Through Shadow’ has the wily synths returning, this time joined with a high chorale, as you’d find in an epic spaghetti western soundtrack. ‘Devil’s Respite’ offers up more of that classic MSB. The horn section’s peppy stabs feel on par with the Rocky soundtrack as the guitars find a dissociated fuzz over the rimshot backbeat. Mesmerizing, haunting yet chilled out and soothing. The closer ‘There Was a Man’ begins with a distant sample of the dearly departed Mr. Bradley echoing off into the distance. A slow waltz plays out as a tribute to their friend and bandleader. Fond memories of happy times come flooding out. A fitting conclusion to their first release since his passing. Triumphant and reverent.
The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band is another fantastic entry into the illustrious band’s catalog. Fusing all the best elements of those soulful styles to create a sonic journey in bite-sized pieces. A great album to live in the background of your life.