[29 October 2012]
The Menahan Street Band are a part of the Daptone family, which usually means a band is a force to be reckoned with. The Daptone label is based in Brooklyn, and it supports a group of musicians who love soul, funk, Afrobeat, and anything that combines all those things and grooves. Sharon Jones and her immaculately-dressed Dap Kings are probably the label’s best-known act, and several current and former Dap Kings make up the Menahan Street Band, an instrumental soul-funk group. Their first album, Make the Road By Walking, came out on Dunham records, a Daptone imprint started by Sharon Jones’ former lead guitarist Tommy “TNT” Brenneck in 2008. Though the Menahan Street Band has looser rules than the Dap Kings concerning attire—they usually don’t wear tuxes, though once when I saw them live, Mr. Brenneck was wearing an enviable green velvet blazer -– they are also capable of creating extremely tight grooves.
So tight, in fact, that Jay-Z sampled the title track from their debut for his track “Roc Boys (and the Winner is…)”. Until recently, the Menahan Street Band also backed Daptone’s “Screamin’ Eagle of Soul”, Charles Bradley, laying down big, bluesy vamps behind Bradley’s powerful vocals. (Bradley now has a new unit, which still includes some of the Menahan Band’s members). After four years, the group has released their second solo album, The Crossing, which once again shows their talent at creating tight instrumental funk.
Everything on The Crossing is buoyed by firm backbeats and highly synchronized horn section. The brass almost always plays as a unit, rarely allowing single horns to spiral off into self-indulgent displays of virtuosity. The horn playing can sound vaguely Middle Eastern, reminiscent of something that might drift out of a café in the score of an old black and white movie set in an exotic foreign locale. Brenneck, the guitarist, picks thin notes, often high and acoustic sounding, or sends out shivers of thick blues modulated by a wah-wah pedal. The bass is lithe and expressive but heavy, like a battering ram. The pace feels a little slower on The Crossing than it was on their first record, and the new album is about six minutes shorter too; the band knows exactly what it wants to do, does it, and does nothing more. The precision of the guitar, power of the bass, tight cohesion of the horns, and crispness of the percussion all combine to give the music a slight feeling of controlled threat. There is a military-like level of discipline that hides remarkable and dangerous power beneath this music’s shiny, funky surface.
Due to their clear level of command and control, the Menahan gang is capable of some marvelous surprises. When they let down their hair down, their music can have a totally different impact. On their debut, this was most visible on the song “Home Again”, which rode cheery, cascading horns and a gently descending guitar line. It was all bounce and relaxed vigor, a sashay down the sidewalk rather than a powerful swagger. The Crossing has a similar killer track, the vaguely melancholy “Everyday a Dream”. The brass duels with the organ, battling to play sweet little runs, and two guitars take turns articulating a similar progression. The drums blow along, completely unconcerned with the action taking place around them. It’s compact, danger-free, streamlined, and impossible to dislike.
The Menahan Street Band are a stellar group of musicians who successfully and seemingly effortlessly combine individual flair into a highly cohesive approach. They are adept playing behind singers or creating their own simmering grooves; they’re also excellent live performers. You can’t ask for much more than that.