Fresh Pepper
Photo: Courtesy of Hive Mind PR

Joseph Shabason and Andre Ethier Step Out with the Jazzy ‘Fresh Pepper’

Like a well-balanced dish, Fresh Pepper carries a host of elements – goofiness, listlessness, warmth, and desire – that make it a hearty meal.

Fresh Pepper
Fresh Pepper
Telephone Explosion
17 June 2022

Musicianship – really any hue of the entertainment rainbow – and the service industry have walked hand in hand for ages, arguably ever since it became untenable to survive on gigs alone. For creative people without otherwise marketable skills, it’s become a networking opportunity as much as a way to pay rent. You’d simply barback or man the door for the clubs you’d want to play, always with the assumption that you’d be working next to, and for, like-minded people.

The universality of the hospitality experience among musicians drives Fresh Pepper, the self-titled debut LP from a group manned by saxophonist Joseph Shabason (Destroyer, The War on Drugs) and singer-songwriter Andre Ethier (The Deadly Snakes). If you’re familiar with Shabason’s instrumental solo material, you might hear Fresh Pepper as a logical extension of his world, where breathy alto saxophone graces dreamlike soundscapes. Here, we’re a fly on the wall in the back of the house, guided by Ethier’s ponderous baritone (with occasional vocals accompaniment by Bernice’s Felicity Williams and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar) in a gentle merging of the gastronomical and the phantasmagorical. As with any low-traffic service job, the hazy blanket of monotony reigns.

Ethier sings the way bubbles rise in a simmering soup, and his words are less the dish’s main ingredient than a spice crucial to its flavor profile. You’d struggle to believe they actually have “New Ways of Chopping Onions”, but Ethier still coos those words like he’s the walls enclosing the kitchen, the fluorescent light illuminating sweaty foreheads. It’s the same cryptic voice narrating “Prep Cook in the Weeds”, where he adds the mildest tinge of existential dread to the song’s easy breeze. “Congee Around Me”, which carries the dusty lilt and measured tempo of a country song, finds him in the process of heartbreak. In his lamentation, the savory porridge dish becomes both a warm comfort and a cold solitary reality, which neatly encapsulates Fresh Pepper as a whole.

Meanwhile, Shabason’s horn feels like the nexus around which everything else orbits. Recall how he imbued a sense of wondrous grandeur to Destroyer’s “Kaputt”, and then luxuriate in the somnolent float of “Seahorse Tranquilizer”, on which Bejar takes lead vocals. On the record’s spectrum between coziness and melancholy, “Seahorse Tranquilizer” leans the furthest toward the former. Yet right afterward, his low breathy whistles are harbingers for the rumbling anxiety of “Dishpit”; close-mic’ed and grimy, you can practically feel the spit from his lips. By now, Shabason has proved he has both a signature style and enough range to break out of it, and Fresh Pepper further solidifies his notoriety as an architect on the saxophone.

Barring some prodding moments of whimsy, the record mainly floats on an anxiolytic wavelength. It’s soft to an almost parodic level, and its bizarre cover art suggests it’s not meant to be a serious commentary. Yet like a well-balanced dish, Fresh Pepper carries a host of elements – goofiness, listlessness, warmth, and desire – that make it a hearty meal, even if it may take more than a few chews to digest properly.

RATING 7 / 10
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