In their quest to reach the essence of funk music, the Dynamites march out a cadre of old funk tropes and well-tested jazz techniques. And they do it in rare form.
Kaboom! Is the first album by funk revivalists the Dynamites, featuring Charles Walker. "Featuring Charles Walker" is key to understanding the band's sound, and not because Charles Walker is a well-known funk luminary. It's debatable whether Walker can offer any real name recognition. But the Dynamites are exactly the type of troupe to include "featuring" in their name: that added touch doesn't merely evoke the tradition of a tight ensemble backing band, "featuring" is distinctly an element of the past. In sound, the group bears a resemblance to a number of famous funk ensembles, including (obsequiously) James Brown's backing band, the J.B.s. In their quest to reach the essence of funk music, the Dynamites march out a cadre of old funk tropes and well-tested jazz techniques. And they do it in rare form.
The Dynamites are straight out of Nashville. Though their ubiquitous promotional materials tout their foundation story as one would some epic meeting-of-the-minds, the story doesn't give us much in the way of plot. A nine-piece funk ensemble, the Dynamites were the brainchild of Bill Elder, aka Leo Black. Put together over a period of two years, the Dynamites were incomplete without a front man. Enter Charles Walker, a soul singer straight out of the '60s. Though his original act, Little Charles and the Sidewinders, may have been a mere blip on American radar, Charles Walker never gave up the music game. Before joining the Dynamites, Walker had released a string of well-received solo albums.
Walker wears his age well. As a singer, his voice ranges from a soulful croon to a forceful bark. Still, one wouldn't call him a virtuoso. His voice is dusky and dry most times, which is suited to the album: Thematically, the songs range from spirited protest songs to playful chants. A soulful ballad, "Dig Deeper" makes a splash late in the album. Walker's voice comes through on all of them. One might even call his performance idiosyncratic: he sounds manly and mature, a funk artifact played to the hilt.
As an album, Kaboom! proceeds like a performance piece. One can't help but realize that the tracks are meant to be heard in a live setting. The band's sound is big -- the troupe's nine musicians take turns showing off their chops in a routine that's as old as jazz. The most recognizable elements of the "Dynamite sound" are a pair of serpentine saxophones, and the persistent B3 organ. The tracks also err on the side of length; nothing here could properly be called radio material. Instead, the songs canter along, with most exceeding the four-minute mark. Centerpiece "Way Down South" clocks in at over seven minutes, the kind of jam that begs for a beer in hand. Meanwhile, final track "Killin It" swaggers along with the renewed energy that only an encore could provide.
The Night at the Apollo feel of the album comes through on the first track, an instrumental dubbed "Body Snatcher". The band shows swagger, speed, and precision as they tear through the song. A Spanish influence winds its way into the song at the one-minute mark. It's the only track on the album without vocals, and one can easily imagine Charles Walker strutting onstage during this number, doing a small dance, and tossing off his cape. That this tune is mirrored in the closing track shows attention to consistency.
The strongest songs on Kaboom! are the old-school protest songs. "Own Thing" is a song of toil and triumph. It's about a hard-working man, slogging his way through a blue collar existence: "Boss man working all the time / He puts everything in his pocket, won't even give him a dime / Boss man, you got a whole lot of nerve / You gonna get what you deserve". "Every Time" has similar activist leanings. In it, Walker bemoans the lack of progress in the world. He begs his brothers to come out to make the world a better place. "Every Time" is also the only song on the album to feature a chorus of singers. The song finds them chanting along, an army of malcontents.
Fully half the album is devoted to songs whose lyrical content takes a back-seat to the music. Thematic window-dressing, the words of "Come on In", "Slinky", and "What's It Gonna Be?" repeat variations on very simple messages. "Slinky", for instance, is about a woman who is, unsurprisingly, slinky. Her features are recounted, but very few of them are particularly enlightening. This is par for the course -- in these songs, the instrumentation is in focus. Of course, they also adhere very closely to traditional funk structures. The musicians play variations and scales over a mere handful of chords. If these tracks didn't follow a formula so closely, they might be considered filler. As is, they seem like part of the act.
What could be an R&B standard, "Dig Deeper" is the Dynamites' surprise single. It's the quintessential romantic soul song -- something Isaac Hayes could have penned. In "Dig Deeper", the band comes across as elegant and tasteful. Each member plays delicately. Together, they produce a sound that could have easily provided the last dance at a 1960s prom. In terms of its story, the song has Walker stumbling upon love and longing for more. While the metaphor of digging deeper is meant for Walker's love interest, it could as easily apply to the song. "Dig Deeper" leaves the audience wanting to see what else the Dynamites are capable of. A stellar first album, Kaboom! is a cherry find for funk lovers and crate diggers alike.