[24 October 2006]
The debut album from West Coast soul/funk/rock trio Honeycut, released on DJ Shadow’s Quannum label, is well nigh unclassifiable. Exhibiting the sounds of four decades of disparate influences, it contains elements of the James Taylor Quartet, Zoot Woman, Stevie Wonder, Air, Curtis Mayfield, Clinic, Portishead, ELO, Steely Dan, and far too many others to mention. To be fair, the band absorbs these influences without ever being in thrall to one particular sound. The overall effect is not unlike that of mixing a dash of everything from the drinks cabinet into one unique, and not altogether successful, cocktail: the ingredients just don’t quite blend together. There’s plenty that works and also plenty that doesn’t, or to be more precise, the music largely does, the vocals/lyrics sometimes do not. The impeccably clean, airbrushed, ‘80s feel to Bart Davenport’s near-falsetto vocals sometimes sits uneasily with the rougher, darker-edged grooves that provide the backdrop: lurching synth, horns, muted strings, the sound of a record needle on a silent groove. This is elegantly rendered by Paris-born keyboardist/arranger RV Salters and drum programmer Tony Sevener, whose ability to shift musical styles is the album’s strong point. The overall impression is of a group still in an embryonic state, perhaps unsure of their desired sound.
Initially I feared the worst. Opener “The Day I Turned to Glass” is overwrought and lyrically weak, featuring such choice offerings as “Just ‘cos you got a talking book don’t mean it’s gonna talk / Just ‘cos you gotta rockin horse don’t mean you can rock”. They aim for a spooky trip-hop feel, but any incipient creepiness is undermined by the bland phrases and white soul delivery of Davenport, whose singing, at times, verges on the histrionic. One can imagine Massive Attack’s Robert del Naja’s breathy paranoid mumblings providing a much more fitting accompaniment to these dark beats, and therein lies the problem with parts of the record, although it does get much better.
The opening bars of “Tough Kid” reminded me of something from Clinic’s Internal Wrangler before the tune morphs into something that sounds uncannily like the Young Disciples’ “Apparently Nothin” voiced by a young white David McAlmont. With the vocals so high up in the mix, it’s just impossible to avoid cringing at the lyrics “You thought it was all about space / But you forgot about time”. It’s hard to imbue lines like this with any real feeling, and it shows. It’s a shame, as the keyboard work of Salters is consistently surprising and inventive. “Shadows” is also unsuccessful, with the singer at times sounding eerily like George Michael, and this from a band who various fan sites are comparing to Gnarls Barkley.
Things pick up on the beautifully orchestrated, though awfully titled, “Butter Room”: a muted ballad that is perhaps the best format for Davenport’s oh-so silky vocals. Subtle, stylish, and tender, this represents the high point of the record thus far. However, I’ve no idea what a ‘butter room’ is, and frankly I’d rather leave it that way. “Dysfunctional” benefits nicely from the counterpoint of a female vocalist and flutters along pleasantly; add in some guitars, and it’s the sort of tune you could imagine Simian coming up with, ditto “Dark Days White Lines”.
The best tracks appear in the later half of the album. It becomes clear that the most successful way to gel the vocals and the music is to either slow… things… down or go for out-and-out pop. “Silky” is, well, just that—silky, a stop-start soul ballad with aching chord changes. I have no major beef with Davenport’s voice (he can certainly sing), it’s just that on too many of the tracks it feels like he’s trying too hard. When the tempo slows it’s as though he relaxes and is able to genuinely emote. “Crowded Avenue” points to just how good this band could be when all the ingredients and influences come together to comprise the perfect blend. It strides along to a well-worked squelch organ groove that could have come straight from Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, or Bernie Worrell’s work on Talking Heads’ Speaking in Tongues. The tune is fresh, funky, and delightful: a sassy stroll through a city street, sung with real verve over nicely arranged Philly Soul horns. Proceedings finish on a strong note with the mournful, minimalist after-hours blues of “Fallen to Greed”.
By the end of the album, I’d almost forgotten how much I disliked the earlier tracks, but not quite. The vocals are, for me anyway, an acquired taste (I’m sure that much is clear by now), smooth as milkshake and without any ‘edge’ whatsoever, while the musical arrangements are, by and large, excellent, whatever the mood or tempo of the tune. I can’t help but think that if they had stuck to the bright and breezy template of some of the album’s later songs, interspersed with the well-honed slow tempo numbers that best showcase Davenports talents, it would have been a much more satisfying and rewarding effort. Oh and bit more effort on the lyrics wouldn’t be amiss either.