It was a great party, you should have stayed 'til the end.
Brooklyn’s Chin Chin have three members at the center, but sound like a larger band on their self-titled debut album, released in France last year and in the US this year, through the hip-hop label Definitive Jux. Actually, in addition to the core of Jeremy Wilms, Wilder Zoby, and Torbitt Schwartz, 11 other musicians play on the album -- never all at once, but sometimes close to it. Some double-up on the same roles as the core trio: guitarist, bassist, vocalist, and percussionist. But it’s the horn players that make the difference. At various times there’s tenor sax, trombone, flugelhorn, trumpet, and baritone sax on these tracks. The horns change Chin Chin from a tight funk-soul group into a “big band” version of the same.
As a big band, Chin Chin plays party music. Def Jux label-head/paranoid-MC-extraordinaire El-P described it as “like the world’s greatest wedding band on acid.” At first listen, it’s the “wedding band” part that rings true, more so than the “on acid” part. This is get-down-on-it, shake-your-ass music. Disco, funk, and soul music, always on the beat and pushing it hard. Chin Chin’s members have session-band roots. The group got its start as part of a monthly party. Those facts make sense, they add up in what their music sounds like.
Chin Chin is not the kind of wild head-trip that the getting-trite phrase “on acid” is meant to describe. However, that doesn’t mean Chin Chin is not stranger than your average party band. They are, though for the first half of the album they’re only slightly stranger than a solid wedding band, and that strangeness seems forced. The vocals have a P-Funk warp to them on tracks like “You Can’t Hold Her”. But that’s a template too, now -- not as crazy as they may want it to be -- though at the song’s end they do rap in a crazed, raspy way that reminds me of demonic teddy bears (teddy bears on acid, maybe?).
In the first half of the album they mostly jam, concisely, within simple song-structures that evoke Stax, P-Funk, Curtis Mayfield (especially, but not only, on the track “Curtis”), Fishbone (meaning, I suppose, a photocopied, more ‘alternative’ version of Mayfield, P-Funk, etc.), and, on “Miami”, a Latin groove of sorts. And they jam well.
It’s the second half of Chin Chin, what would be Side B, where the drugs kick in more. Or at least the vocoders do, on a succession of three tracks, the third of which is titled “Mr Sexy Boy”, perhaps a reference to Air’s vocoder-happy track “Sexy Boy”. And I suppose Air is a good influence for a funky party band to have, to make them more interesting. “Mr. Sexy Boy” actually sounds nothing like Air, more like a sexy ‘70s nighttime ballad, with shades of Steely Dan even: a love song for rooftop summertime parties. The second of the vocoder-tracks, “Ohio”, is especially interesting, moving from a lullaby into an almost-metal crunch, while they curiously welcome us to the title state. The vocoder is essentially used as a cool effect, but really, what is a vocoder except a cool-sounding effect? So they use the vocoder well, adding character to the album as a transition into the final section, when the grooves get deeper, the songs get spacier, and the lyrics get goofier, more absurd.
As the songs get stranger, the band seems to play with even more confidence, turning on a dime, dropping splendid horn charts and guitar licks out of the blue. The playful “Toot D’Amore” turns into a killer brass workout at the end, the guitars adding a strange atmosphere throughout without slowing the song down. In an almost throwaway moment in the abstract yet still-moving “Cotillon”, they turn Sly and the Family Stone’s immortal "And so on and so on / And scooby dooby doo” line into a whisper, a breeze. “Le Petit Mort” almost ridiculously pairs a spot-on slow-jam come-on with a premature-ejaculation confession. At some point they throw in Mayfield’s line “Keep on pushing” as a punch-line. That and the Sly reference give a good sense of what Chin Chin is up to. They’re taking their favorite styles of music and having a ball with them. On Chin Chin, that party doesn’t really get going strong until the second half. So, like always, those wedding guests who split early are the ones who missed out on the real fun.