Youngblood Brass Band: Center:Level:Roar

Thomas Hauner
Youngblood Brass Band

As a new generation continues to reshape traditional ensembles from big band to chamber and play it punk by adopting pop, it's useful to go back and marvel at one of the albums that truly innovated in this new-jack band geek era.

Youngblood Brass Band


Label: Ozone
US Release Date: 2003-04-22
UK Release Date: Available as import

I have never visited New Orleans, and this shortcoming ranks as one of my greatest musical failures. I realize it’s the birthplace of jazz and its busking is second to none. I’ve also heard stories of the powdery sweetness of a Café du Monde beignet, or the piquant bite of a seafood po’ boy, consumed at Jazz Fest making an experience complete. All these deficiencies make me appear entirely unqualified to genuinely appreciate the visceral aspects of one of New Orleans’ greatest exports, the brass band.

The same lack of cajun country experience afflicts Youngblood Brass Band. It seems inconceivable that the fabled charm and swing of New Orleans could transcend regions and transplant itself into the sounds and rhythms of this Madison, Wisconsin, troupe. However, one listen to their first release, Word on the Street, dispels all doubts. Despite questionable singing on some tunes, the musicality is high and instrumentals surge with energy and style, grounded by the strong playing of sousaphone player, and lead-songwriter and arranger, Nat McIntosh. “Crescent City” is a harmonious, even sentimental, tribute to their genre’s origins, providing a scenic stroll through the historic city. The title track pushes ahead with more rhythm despite holding back with a more conventional melody.

But in Center:Level:Roar Youngblood goes far beyond the conservative and traditional sounds of a brass band. They march to the beat of their own drummer, notably percussionist and MC, Dave Skogen. The album finds the group dissatisfied with the solid yet modest sounds of Word on the Street and aggressively pushing the boundaries that have defined the brass band genre. The opening track, “To Come Together”, is a spoken-word manifesto in which Skogen decisively takes the lyrical reigns of the style-bending tour de force to come. Fittingly named, and establishing the rhythmic inertia that propels the album, “Round One” is thus unleashed on the listener. Soaring horns, intertwining harmonies and a cohesive tightness catapult the piece -- and the album -- forward. The syncopated rhythms tell one’s body to move, and dancing trumpet lines entice like sirens as a distant choir calls below them. The group’s sound is a distinct one of mythic proportions.

The team of Skogen and Tom Reschke on percussion creates a polyrhythmic tableau that touches on, but is not limited to, hip-hop, Afro-Cuban, Dixieland, and rock and roll. Sonic diversity also persists, and is best exemplified on one of the album’s strongest tracks, “Brooklyn”. As diverse as the borough itself, this track epitomizes Nat McIntosh’s composing and unique arranging to present a layered, well-balanced and penetrating wall of sound. Though McIntosh is the principal songwriter and arranger, his presence can be overlooked unless paying attention. However, it’s hard to miss his soloing on this track, and it brings attention to his profound virtuosity and innovative style. McIntosh uses “mulitphonics” by mimicing DJ scratching techniques and also harmonizing by actually singing into his instrument while playing it. The result is an entirely distinct, ostensibly synthetic, and completely mind-spinning exercise. With the ensemble’s punctuated playing, “Brooklyn” comes as close to an instrumental brass band pop hit as one can imagine.

Not that Youngblood Brass Band would ever shy away from a pop hit, either. Segueing into “Human Nature Pt. 2” from another powerful and moving track, “Diaspora”, the group launches into their blazing interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”, providing it with the energy the original lacks. In their live shows the group also regularly plays an instrumental rendition of M.O.P.’s “Ante Up”, performed debatably as hard-core as the original.

“The Movement” (the track’s name could easily derive from its symphonic-like length of 7:21), is yet another song of piercing rhythm and baritone energy. But, unlike its instrumental counterparts, it features inspiring lyrics from MC Dave Skogen that passionately convey the group’s penchant for social change and activism. He also dutifully pays respect to Youngblood’s brass band brethren.

One of the most endearing features of Youngblood -- and one faithful to its instrumentations’ roots -- is their ability to overwhelm an audience with punk rock energy and sound with a largely acoustic ensemble. Devoid of all the amplification, electronics, and gadgetry that so many of today’s groups depend on, Youngblood’s raw instrumental sound and competent musicianship is a refreshing reminder of the capability of seemingly ordinary things. Whether they’re playing as a throwback to Dixieland-era New Orleans or cultivating a rogue sound, one thing is certain: never has a brass band rocked so hard.

Live at Vibraphonic 2007


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.