“It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at”
You can’t judge a book by its cover, but I’ve always wondered if you can judge the cover. So I tried my hand at it with Step It Up by The Bamboos. Never heard of The Bamboos? That’s all right, because I hadn’t either, until I did some research, which started with the cover of the disc.
The front cover shows six guys in suits walking toward the camera. That picture is framed in a square by the group’s name “The Bamboos” and the album title Step It Up. Other pictures join the group photo to fill the rest of the space in the frame, but they feature various textures of (yeah, you guessed it) bamboo. In fact, bamboo decorates the whole presentation, right down to the liner notes. Now, judging the cover by looking at the cover, you might think, “Gee, that’s not very creative,” and you’d be right. After all, it’s a group called The Bamboos decorating their album cover with various photos of bamboo. They’ve also got flashes of bamboo on their website at www.thebamboos.com. Unless a koala bear coordinated the art design, the concept seems uninspired. Let’s be thankful they didn’t name the album after the third track, “In The Bamboo Grove” or try to use some bamboo quality like “Reed My Lips” or “Outside The Hollow”.
But that’s the cover. Because if you looked at these suited dudes on the cover and saw their fetish for bamboo and you surmised the music itself was uninspired, you’d be wrong. You’d discover an Australian band with the desire and the chops to be funky. Never heard of “Aussie Funk”? That’s okay, because I hadn’t either, until I heard Step It Up and tried to give it a description. Then I read the liner notes and saw Robert Luis, the record label’s A&R guy, calling it Australian Funk as he related how surprised people have been to hear an Australian band playing what he called “Deep Funk music”. In all fairness, though, it’s not all Australian. Lance Ferguson—the founder, writer, producer, and guitarist of the group—is from New Zealand, so it really should be “Aussie and Kiwi Funk”.
No matter what you call it, these bamboo brothers can definitely get down. They don’t really funk with singers, although they wisely invited label mate Alice Russell to sing on “Transcend Me” and the title track. The Bamboos frequently tour and collaborate with Ms. Russell. Her voice on Step It Up is an exquisite companion to the music because, the instruments are without a doubt the lead singers on this album.
Rather than get you bogged down with lyrics, The Bamboos would rather get your feet moving to their instrumentals. Their flavor is akin to The Brand New Heavies and Brooklyn Funk Essentials, especially when it comes to their reliance on drums (by group member Daniel Farrugia) and bass (by Yuri Pavlinov). A good example is “In The Bamboo Grove” (which should have used “Groove” rather than “Grove”), an almost eight minute romp that begins with a funky drum solo before it kicks in the bass and then branches out into organs, brass, and even flutes. The song “Golden Rough” begins the same way, and most of the songs showcase extensive drum solos and breakdowns.
Robert Luis’ liner notes assure us that The Bamboos aren’t trying to be “retro”, as if “retro” might be a bad thing. I actually thought they were trying to be “retro”, and I found it refreshing. At times, I thought I was listening to the soundtrack of a Blaxploitation flick, like Isaac Hayes and an army of Stax musicians had jumped into my stereo. I had visions of Pam Grier sporting a hugely blown out Afro, while Melvin Van Peeples stands around with one movie camera and a single role of film trying to get the movie finished, you dig? The songs that showcased the flute struck me as the most “retro”. They reminded me of Bobbi Humphrey’s flute work or Brian Jackson’s on “The Bottle” by Gil Scot-Heron. But trust me, the ability to conjure images of Ms. Grier as Foxy Brown is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a high honor. It’s an achievement you talk about with pride.
Still, the album has weaknesses. Remember the album cover? Remember the picture of the group and various bamboo textures framed by the words “The Bamboos” and “Step It Up”? Well, the cover art just might have been a warning about how boxed in our boys in bamboo really are. Obviously, they can play their Australian boots off. I’m sure the clubs down under are selling crazy platters of Shrimp on the Barbee whenever The Bamboos are in the house. Then you get to track 5 (“Blackfoot”) and you think, “Wait, didn’t I already hear this? Do I have a song on repeat?” And so it goes, the feeling of dj vu, like you either heard it all before or else there’s a glitch in the matrix and you’ll have to find a new escape route to Zion. The Bamboos can jam, but it’s just like Anthony Anderson’s character told Terrence Howard’s character Dee Jay in the movie Hustle & Flow, “You’ve got plenty of flow. It just goes on and on. The shit don’t ever end.” Despite gems like “Step It Up”, “Tighten Up”, “In The Bamboo Grove”, and “Crooked Cop”, the album is truthfully one long song broken up into tracks. As their website and liner notes readily admit, The Bamboos love to perform live and their shows typically feature a “non-stop mixtape style”. In other words, the shit don’t ever end.
Like the album cover suggests, we aren’t given a chance to hear the bamboo sound outside the box. I found the album to be awesome mood music for writing or when I use it as a substitute for the sound effects and built-in music on a videogame, but because these guys have so much potential, I wanted to see them experiment more. I wanted them to do something off the wall to make me stop writing or playing my videogame, something that would make me rewind the track so I could hear that funky stuff one more time. When you’ve got at least six talented musicians in the studio, I can’t fathom why you’d want your songs to sound like you’re using a drum machine.
All in all, Step It Up is a strong effort with plenty of tight drumming, funky bass, and well placed brass. Give The Bamboos a crank at a party to get the crowd moving or put the whole CD on repeat while you’re writing or relaxing. But don’t, under any circumstances, play the entire CD while you’re driving on the highway. The repetition in the band’s sound is not conducive to long trips, and you could end up in a ditch if you try this CD late at night on the road. Look for these guys in live performances and, in the future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them working on more collaborations or belting out movie scores.