Dance and groove bands face a unique set of challenges in the studio. While capturing the energy and dynamic design of live music is essential, it is usually not “enough.” A blistering document of a great live band preaches to the converted more than it expands borders. Good songs help the cause; but good in what way? The very values of the dance genres tend to define songs as vehicles for the delivery and branding of the groove experience, not as primary ends themselves.
This may be one reason why groove bands are especially fond of the exhortative mode of songwriting, whether the exhortations are to party or to revolt. On record, exhortative and interactive songs suffer for the lack of empathic audience response and the give-and-take of performance. By the same token, groove bands know where their bread is buttered: Stray from the spirit and organic values of your live show at your own peril.
Props to the Big Takeover for grappling head-on with the “studio problem” on their fine new full-length Silly Girl. The band has long been the region’s premier reggae/ska/global pop group – maybe the only band that can pack the Bearsville Theater, the Falcon, Club Helsinki and BSP, the grand slam of our small-to-mid-sized national-circuit rooms. The Big Takeover’s live prowess and charisma have never been in question, nor have they ever failed to show up on the band’s studio dates. Silly Girl prevails as a record for three broad reasons: the foregrounding of the charm and eccentricity of Nee Nee Rushie’s vocal performances; some expansion and refinement in the band’s harmonic vocabulary and arrangement detail work; and, finally, the tempered embracing of the sonic horseplay and studio-nanigans that are very much a part of the reggae/ska/dub and Afropop legacy.
In fact, sonic horseplay, not songs, is the keynote of Silly Girl’s lead track, the delightfully casual “Rubber Biscuit,” which may or may not be a radical ska reading of the Chips’ doo-wop song made famous by the Blues Brothers. It’s a purely live track, and there is no particular song there to speak of. Over consecutive trombone, sax and guitar solos, Rushie cries out the song’s title and various other isolated bursts of language through a comically excessive delay effect (do I detect the signature flutter of the Roland Space Echo or other tape-based vintage delay?). The song ends with someone, possibly the recording engineer, saying of the take, “I think that’s another good one!”
The silliness of “Rubber Biscuit” accentuates the strict focus and conscious design of the rest of the record: When Track Two – the advance single “Come before Five” – hits it with its tight form, precise detail and smoldering vocal performance, it is almost a shocking transition from the loose and live opening teaser. It’s a game- and frame-changer. From that point on, Silly Girl is one tight, smart and sonically distinctive treat after another: the funk-inflected “Sizzlin’ Bacon II,” the skewed Afropop of “Play another Song,” the moody and cavernous “Paddies,” the weird swing of “Holiday,” the utterly charming old-school pop of “Cry,” one of the record’s real highlights. This band is wildly adept at the reggaefication of non-reggae grooves.
While Rushie’s distinctive character and idiosyncratic phrasing never much yield center stage (nor should they), ultimately every player in the band steps forward as a character and a voice, a personality. It has long been my opinion that the strangely articulate and timbrally expressive trombonist Andrew Vogt is this band’s secret weapon. But every player here shines, while the Big Takeover bassist/studio mastermind Rob Kissner keeps the center solid and the grooves grounded, shining is his role as traffic director and central conceptualizer of a band that is doing some genuinely interesting things with a slew of global influences.
The Big Takeover celebrates the release of Silly Girl at BSP in Kingston on Saturday, January 14 at 8 p.m. Karma Darwin opens. Tickets cost $10 in advance and $15 at the door. BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston. For more information, visit www.bspkingston.com.