I love horn sections. I hope that I will be a horn player in a next life, or, at the very least, a saxophone repair man. Where have horns gone in popular music? They were a staple of rock, pop, funk, and soul through the ‘70s. They are guaranteed to add pizzazz to a live performance. But they faded. The Stones and Springsteen left them behind, and R&B moved in different directions. They still appear of course – people have proclaimed 2011 as a big year for horns in pop, mainly on the strength of a couple Lady Gaga songs and M83’s “Midnight City” saxophone solo – but they are not much of a factor in the mainstream. Luckily, brass bands like the Soul Rebels Brass Band continue to crusade on behalf of the horn. On their latest album, Unlock Your Mind, they throw soul, rap, and funk into the brass band mix, resulting in a delightful amalgamation of nasty trumpet and trombone lines and feel good tunes.
The album starts with “504”, an ode to New Orleans and also to the sousaphone. The sousaphone is, according to the album’s liner notes, “a member of the tuba family.” It is wielded with lethal effectiveness throughout “504” and Unlock Your Mind as a whole. The sousaphone is stunningly lithe and elastic, while also providing a low end thicker than a normal electric bass, a strong foundation to build from. On “504”, vocals from Sean C. are soulful and smooth, and a trombone solo squirts through the middle of the song. It’s a great opening. The Soul Rebels follow it with a fun cover choice – the Eurythmics hit “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”. It’s always cool to hear what brass bands can do with covers – for an example, look no further than the Hot 8 Brass Band cover of “Sexual Healing”, a complete transformation of Marvin Gaye’s slinky hit. “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” starts like a funeral dirge then switches into high gear, raucous and funky where the original is icy and robotic.
The Rebels don’t stop there. The title track gets vocals from New Orleans R&B legend Cyril Neville. “Unlock Your Mind” takes on a classic soul reggae feel, as Neville offers up advice on how to improve things after a failed love affair. “I Made It” has falling, disco-influenced horn hits, reminiscent of the intro to Taste of Honey’s classic “Rescue Me”. As the chorus begins, a countering group of horns starts to rise just as the descending ones reach bottom, re-initiating the groove. There is rapping and singing, and the whole thing excels as a loose, feel-good celebration of victory and overcoming obstacles without too much hubris. The rapping isn’t out of this world, but anytime the flow falls short, the horns lift everything back up. It’s refreshing to see a celebration of success without the alienating blast of arrogance that often follows.
Unlock Your Mind is a testimony to the power of horns – in all their squawking, tooting, screaming glory – and a vibrant concoction of different types of music. Until more bands tap into the magic of brass, I’ve got bands like the Soul Rebels Brass Band to give me my fix. And my next life to look forward to.