The Bar-Kays were a funk band you had to hear, whether as a house band at Stax, backing Otis Redding, or doing their own thing. Despite the plane crash that took most of its members, the group carried on, recording on key albums such as Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul and Shaft. Now the Bar-Kays persist, with only one original member (James Alexander) and only one from their ‘70s incarnation (Larry Dodson). The group has updated its sound, taking in elements of neo-soul, crunk, and more, but the new album, House Party, falters under the weight of its influences.
The album, with its insistent use of (reasonably) contemporary codes, sounds less like a soul performance and more like a calculated performance of soul. The opening of the album, despite an appearance from producer Jazze Pha, nearly kills the disc with its immediate bursts of cliches—“Show me what you got, shortie”, “Drop it like it’s hot”, and “Shake what your mama gave you” all appear at least once within the first 40 seconds of opener “Sho-Nuff”. The track, with its truly funk bassline, carries a true party groove, but it fizzles amid the effort to sound contemporary. What could have been a fun dance cut can’t rise above forgettable.
Second track “What Goes-N-Da-Club Stays In Da-Club”, which, even forgiving the punctuation, offers a title that can only refer to a forgettable re-write of too much recent hip-hop. Its reliance on phrases like “get low in da club” reveals a creative void and only the trappings of new music. Dodson and EZ Roc brought in some crunk influences on this one, but the style only makes the song nondescript. The Bar-Kays are officially followers trying to fit into an overcrowded scene without bringing anything new (unless history counts).
Other tracks feel just as derivative while being even more out of step. Both “Glad You’re My Lady” and “Hey Y’All” draw influence more from BLACKstreet than anything in soul or hip-hop, even lifting the vocal inflection of “No Diggity”‘s “get her out of my mind” for a similar line. The performances aren’t bad so much as they’re just strange. The switch from recent crunk to dated New Jack disrupts the flow of the album primarily by its anachronistic shift, but also by suggesting that the Bar-Kays no longer have their own sound, but are content to rely on patching together the sound of artists who were hopefully originally listening to them.
The group also suffers from its romantic lyrics. “Let’s Git Bizzy” probably bottoms out the album for reasons that are too obvious to explore, but “Holla If You Like That” also confuses explicitness with sexiness. As the band loses its sense of musical touch, it drops its ability to seduce. “Let’s Git Bizzy”‘s plea to do it in “the bedroom or in the backyard” sounds like a parody of Marvin Gaye, but the Bar-Kays, who used to be able to play tongue-in-cheek, seem to have missed their own joke.
The album does have one redeeming grace, namely that it’s easy on the ears. Fans of hip-hop and neo-soul can throw this on and enjoy an hour of background music. The problem, of course, is that it never rises above the level of inessential. Some of the music really works a groove (including “Sho-Nuff”), but too many of those grooves can be found elsewhere in fresher forms.
The album’s closing track, “Barkays”, sums it up; “People always show us love / ‘Cause they like what we used to sing”. It’s an unintentional comment on the contents of this album, which takes seven of its twelve tracks from 2003’s The Real Thing (and remixes one of those songs for an eighth). The group argue that they “get crunk with an old school funk”, but they really hit neither. Older artists sometimes suffer under the burden of history; usually it’s their own history, but in the case of these “Copy Cat” writers, it’s the recent history the band tries to imitate.