Always a band with fierce chops in the service of good taste, great feel, egoless ensemble values and a ripped-speaker dynamo of a frontwoman, there was yet something about Breakfast for the Boys that felt a little stock or inherited: a received language of groove and gesture that they hadn’t yet gotten around to customizing or questioning much. This is not necessarily a bad thing; genres make great preexisting foundations for players and comfortable pockets for audiences as well. Young studs don’t think about how to run; they just run as nature instructs them. As a young band, B4tB simply smoked the clubs of New Paltz and environs. Most people who caught them by accident would thenceforward catch them on purpose.
But making a record is a hall of mirrors – house-of-horror connotations fully intended. Nothing jolts you so violently out of your positional perspective as a player and into the out-of-body, external POV, with all of its great whys and why-nots and who-cares. Recording makes you ask the most abstract and formal questions – Why sing like this? Why sound like this? What is the journey and purpose of this song? – and makes you question the function of every f*cking waggle of your pinkie finger under the aural microscope. It can be excruciating, sobering, vulnerable, painfully transformative. At some point, you just have to say, “It is what it is. We are what we are.” And trust that it matters, or, under the right conditions, could.
In the making of their self-titled debut, Breakfast for the Boys obviously went through the gantlet of such self-questioning with open ears, unflinching honesty and the will to emerge somewhere different from where they began. Breakfast for the Boys is anything but a stock and inherited jazzy funk record; it is a stunning singularity of progressive soul/rock, more in the sui generis spirit of an indie groove record (like the bizarre latest from Dirty Projectors) than a get-down, rise-up soul cliché. While the indie kids probably won’t embrace it (jazzy chops soul still doesn’t play well in that world; their loss), Breakfast for the Boys sports a more distinctive and purposeful aesthetic than most anything I have heard from the bedrooms of Brooklyn lately.
The compact, group-written songs (none reaching five minutes, most sub-four) are wildly eventful and layered. Groove never falters, but it sure does jump around a lot: a delightful ADHD most prominent on the tour de force track “This Is the End.” The exhilarating opener “Lotus and Dagger” finds the already-gritty voice of Aubrey Haddard filtered for additional grit over a muscular Purdie shuffle that gives way to a haunted, almost soul/metal chorus. Like all of the bold formal and conceptual moves on this record, it just works. The empathic band plays with odd signatures without calling attention to the oddness. The NOLA-backline-flavored “I Had It Right” bounces in and out of 5; “Fahrenheit” somehow manages to sound like classic Motown and be (mostly) in 7/4.
Jazzy tensions reminiscent of both Steely and Stevie abound, but so does something like garage savagery (“Elevate”) and soul/Zep riffage. The cheeky music-theory joke of the album-closing ballad “Lydia” (its melody is in the Lydian mode) doesn’t obscure the track’s exquisite modern-jazz depth and beauty. There is an unerring sense of conscious choice about every single move here, and the overarching experimental spirit of a band both honoring and reinventing its traditions.
In this band of chopsy and slick players (drummer Roger LaRochelle, guitarist Pierce Allen, keyboardist Lukas Brenard), the bassist Sam Smith stands out Everestian: a budding freak of the, like, 27-string bass who is getting steady work in that very limited virtuoso niche market. Those of us who know his deal will listen closely to this record for those “f*ck you, Sam Smith” moments of technical absurdity and Jaconian fire. There are only a small handful, but they are there – though of course his playing is nimble, toneful and melodically rich throughout.
One other thing about finishing a record: It rather instantly makes you a different live band. Even if you are not attempting to replicate the record’s arrangements live, the experience of having gone so far outside yourself forever changes your awareness and the way you relate to the ensemble. Suddenly you are using your producer ears, not just your player ears. Considering how good a live band B4tB has always been, that’s kind of a scary thought.
Breakfast for the Boys celebrates the release of their roundly impressive debut at BSP on Friday, April 28 at 8 p.m. Joanna Teeters, formerly known as Mad Satta and another purveyor of extremely high-end groove music, will open. Admission costs $10. BSP is located at 323 Wall Street in Kingston. To sample Breakfast for the Boys, visit https://breakfastfortheboys.bandcamp.com.
Breakfast for the Boys release show with Joanna Teeters, Friday, April 28, 8 p.m., $10, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; https://breakfastfortheboys.bandcamp.com.