Music

Defunkt: Defunkt + / Thermonuclear Sweat +

Hunter Felt

In the beginning, Defunkt was a mad scientist of a band, attempting to splice together jazz and funk in ways no other band had ever attempted. Think of this two disc set as its little mutant baby.


Defunkt

Defunkt + / Thermonuclear Sweat +

Label: Rykodisc
US Release Date: 2005-09-13
UK Release Date: 2005-09-12
Amazon affiliate
Amazon
iTunes

Defunkt is one of those bands that sound incredible in theory, and rather disappointing in practice. In the early '80s, Joe and Byron Bowie (brothers of famed jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie) combined to form an outfit that would combine the tight grooves of funk with the freedom of experimental jazz. The resulting outfit, Defunkt, was an attempt to pull jazz-funk fusion away from the freeze-dried inanities of the emerging smooth jazz movement and create something both commercially viable and artistically fulfilling. With this latest Rykodisc release, pairing up Defunkt's first two albums with added bonus tracks, the band's early struggles and occasionally breakthroughs are given equal time, revealing a band attempting to create a type of music that may have been impossible to create.

Defunkt, the band's debut, probably reveals Defunkt's main flaw: its music often seems far more academic than organic. On many of its tracks, it seems like the band is fighting its own inclinations in order to sound more like a traditional funk band, reining in its more freeflowing nature in the name of the groove. It doesn't feel like the band is completely dedicated to the music it's performing. The musicians sound as if they are simply going through the motions, like a major label artist fallen on hard times and forced to work as a covers band in a bar.

This fault might not be with the band, who are all talented musicians, but in the songwriting itself. Witness a song like "Strangling Me with Your Love", the supposed single on the album, which takes an absolutely banal funk riff and extends it beyond its expiration break, all-the-while refusing to pursue any of the jazzy variations that present themselves throughout the course of the song. Even worse are the anemic vocals, and horrendous lyrics that try to combine love with violence, and lines like "I made love to a photocopy", that suggest that the band may have worked better as a strictly instrumental unit. With regards to some of these jazz-tinged funk sing-a-longs, I am reminded of the words of my friend Jeremy, "I get what they're trying to do, but I'm not sure what they're trying to do is even possible."

Interestingly, the best songs on Defunkt, are the ones they crib from other sources. "In the Good Times" takes on the immortal "Good Times" riff, while "Defunkt" finds the band adapting the P-Funk anthem to suit its own purposes, while "Thermonuclear Sweat" is, as one would guess, a fission-filled update on James Brown's "Cold Sweat". While with other acts this lack of originality would be a minus, these tracks only point to the fact that Defunkt's skills are less about creating grooves but rather radically reworking them. With these three tracks, Defunkt take on a recognizable trope and riff on them like, well, the jazz band that they really are rather than the funk band that they're trying to be.

To be fair, they do achieve an admirable balance between jazz exploration and lockstep funk grooves on the bonus track, "Razor's Edge", a 10-minute exploration of cocaine addiction, that manages to keep a genuine danceable rhythm going as the musicians (including a guest spot from Lester himself) take their opportunities to take the song on another plane. In this 10-minute track, possibly the finest moment on this two-disc collection, Defunkt show that the "perfect synthesis" that they attempted on their debut album is achievable (albeit difficult).

Still, Thermonuclear Sweat, the follow up, is a better, tighter album, if not quite as bold in its intents, because the band follows their jazz instincts more often than not. Defunkt, which is joined by Vernon Reid whose recognizable riffage provides some of the best soloing on the album, is at its best when it isn't hampered by cookie-cutter grooves and is allowed to explore. Thermonuclear Sweat still contains some funk tracks, but the band feels more comfortable, "I Tried to Live Alone" is the type of flat-out party starter that is missing from the lackluster Defunkt. However, the band mixes up with some straight jazz pieces like "Cocktail Hour (Blue Bossa)" and "Big Bird (Au Private)", which makes it a more varied listening experience, capturing the sheer range of this talented band. Maybe the album works better for the simple fact that the band doesn't stretch out songs just for the sake of stretching out songs. When the band runs out of ways to stretch materials, it ends the song rather than risking boring the audience, a marked difference between this album and its predecessor.

After all, there's enough time to stretch out during their live performances, which constitute the bulk of Defunkt's bonus tracks ("Razor's Edge" notwithstanding). While they may have been a fun band to hear live, these recordings fail to prove that Defunkt were a must-see musical experience. In fact the repetitive, uninteresting live takes on "Strangling You with My Love" and "In the Good Times" do more harm to Defunkt than good, acting as an encore that goes on for longer than actually desired, having the listener wonder at what point is it no longer impolite to slip out the door.

Ultimately, having both of these albums forced together seems a bit irritating. The people who would adore Defunkt would be cool on the more jazz-centric Thermonuclear Sweat (this group includes, oddly enough, the gentleman writing the liner notes who almost shrugs off the band's second album). Vice-versa, those who would prefer Thermonuclear Sweat would rarely listen to the first album. It would have been nice for Rykodisc to provide separate issues. As it stands, this double disc set provides a good introduction to an underappreciated band that was as much ahead of itself as it was ahead of the times.

6


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.

Books

Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.

Music

Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Music

Hip-Hop's Raashan Ahmad Talks About His Place in 'The Sun'

On his latest work,The Sun, rapper Raashan Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop.

Music

Between the Buried and Me's Baby Pictures Star in 'The Silent Circus'

The Silent Circus shows Between the Buried and Me developing towards the progressive metal titans they would eventually become.

Music

The Chad Taylor Trio Get Funky and Fiery on 'The Daily Biological'

A nimble jazz power trio of drums, tenor sax, and piano, the Chad Taylor Trio is free and fun, funky and fiery on The Daily Biological.

Music

Vistas' 'Everything Changes in the End' Is Catchy and Fun Guitar Rock

Vistas' debut, Everything Changes in the End, features bright rock music that pulls influences from power-pop and indie rock.

Film

In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?

Music

Maestro Gamin and Aeks' Latest EP Delivers LA Hip-Hop Cool (premiere + interview)

MaestroAeks' Sapodigo is a collection of blunted hip-hop tunes, sometimes nudging a fulsome boom-bap and other times trading on laid-back, mellow grooves.

Music

Soul Blues' Sugaray Rayford Delivers a "Homemade Disaster" (premiere + Q&A)

What was going to be a year of touring and building Sugaray Rayford's fanbase has turned into a year of staying home and reaching out to fans from his Arizona home.

Music

Titan to Tachyons' Experimental Heaviness on Full Display via "Earth, And Squidless" (premiere)

Featuring current members of Imperial Triumphant, Titan to Tachyons break incredible new ground in the realm of heavy music.

Music

Jerry Leger Teams with Moby Grape's Don Stevenson for "Halfway 'Til Gone" (premiere)

Reminiscent of Lee Hazlewood and the Everly Brothers, Jerry Leger's "Halfway 'Til Gone" is available on all streaming platforms on 6 August.

Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.