The UK’s New Mastersounds have been around since 1999, releasing albums with regularity, yet it’s still something of a shock to learn that their latest full-length, Therapy, is their ninth studio album. Remaining true to their mostly-instrumental funk roots, the collective has introduced some new sounds into the mix this time around, perhaps seeking to allay staleness. Some of these experiments are more successful than others, but it is that basic uptempo, wah-wah inflected, bass-heavy, organ-choogling funk that makes the strongest impression here.
Opening track “Old Man Noises” hits the groove right away, with a peppy tempo and plenty of keyboard accents and noodling guitar. The band’s rhythm section remains as tight as ever, with on target drumming and a meaty, muscular bass groove propelling everything along.
Unfortunately, “Old Man Noises” is one of the high points of the album, as the band explores other avenues, such as the vaguely lite-jazz meanderings of follow-up track “Morning Fly”, which trades gurgling organ for snappy piano and tidy, dexterous guitar picking. It’s all virtuosic enough, but it lacks the veneer of grit that the band wallows in throughout their best tunes. Much the same could be said of “When It Rains…”, the album’s tentpole track. Clocking in at seven minutes, “When It Rains…” is significantly longer than anything else here, which makes it especially unfortunate that the tune is so forgettable. With its background strings and tasteful, understated arrangement, the song lacks bite. Maybe the band were trying for ambience, but one can’t help thinking of Lowell George, founding member of Dixie dirt-rockers Little Feat, who once exclaimed in frustration at that band’s new sound: “Who are we, fuckin’ Weather Report?”
Unfortunately, there’s a good deal more Weather Report than Little Feat in this current incarnation of The New Mastersounds. For every high energy groove, such as the over-too-soon rocker “Monday Meters” or the bouncing funk of “WWIII (and How to Avoid It)”, there are two or three forgettable tunes with sluggish tempos and lite-rock DNA.
There is also the matter of the guest vocalists. While I can’t claim familiarity with every New Matersounds album, I have heard several, and it seems to me that there are more vocals on this disc than on previous outings. Guest singers include The Motet’s Kim Dawson and Lettuce’s Ryan Zoidis and performances range from the inspired to the… well, less inspired. “I Want You to Stay” features Dawson and is the weakest song on the album, with vocals that sound strained at times, all in service to one of those sluggish, forgettable tunes mentioned above. Dawson is more successful in “Soul Sista”, as her gutsy performance conjures up shades of Tina Turner in her prime. It’s still not a great song, but Dawson’s vocals elevate it.
Zoidis shows up for “Slow Down”, a fun, toe-tapping funk tune that brings back the wah-wah guitars and bouncing bass for that classic funk feel. Unison vocals, delivered almost in a chant, work perfectly in the mix. If you didn’t know any better, you might think that this song came straight out of 1975 (in a good way).
On balance, then, Therapy is a moderately good time, if not quite the wall-to-wall funkfest that some of its predecessors have been. Long time fans might welcome the expansion of sounds and styles, but for this listener at least, it’s a mixed bag.