If you accept New Orleans guitarist Earl King’s definition, funk “implies a concentrated rhythm and stiffness and more concentration.” That’s as concise an analysis as you’re likely to encounter, and on the new Kaboom!, Nashville’s The Dynamites keep it precise and tight for singer Charles Walker, who proves himself a fine exemplar of funk’s worldview.
Walker, a Nashville native who has been recording since the late ’50s, comes across as soulfully bent as James Brown’s second banana Bobby Byrd, if not the original Mr. Dynamite himself. Bandleader and producer Bill Elder, operating under his nom de funk Leo Black, contributes hyperactive songs and arrangements that feature biting minor-sixth guitar chords and horn charts that both retard and advance the compositions. Kaboom! moves like a 1970 Brown recording, but its density is mannerist, not retro.
On “Can You Feel It?,” Walker sounds upbeat about matters that would sadden the average person. A woman with whom Walker seems to be involved stays out late and explains, “I’ve been working, working all night long.” Something smells strongly enough for Walker to ask the band, and by extension everyone in the universe, if they can smell it too. The song illustrates how funk music strives to remake the world in its own image, and ends up holding its nose.
Not as post-grammatical as Byrd’s 1971 “Doin’ the Do,” which featured the couplet, “When I sit and twiddle my thumbs / I think about our day will come,” Kaboom! is filled with songs of uncertain meaning. “What’s It Gonna Be?” seems to call listeners to political action while expressing enthusiasm for regional cooking. “They got the crayfish boil / They got the red beans and rice / Seafood gumbo with that Italian pepper spice,” Walker sings, and then adds, “Gotta find what’s real, with no illusions.”
“Way Down South” starts with disorienting horns, mentions Hurricane Katrina and segregation, and appears to allude to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. “Slinky” is a minimalist character sketch that finds Walker declaring, “She’s hot and that means a lot,” while the swinging “Dig Deeper” shows off his gospel-music chops.
If Walker sounds eager, and a bit lewd, The Dynamites demonstrate their mastery of the funk idiom. On “Every Time,” the contrast between speedy drums and laconic guitar is exciting. “Come On In” and “Killin’ It” are abstract compositions that suggest blues without abandoning funk’s essential kineticism. Bassist Jackson Eppley and drummer Derrek Phillips provide space for Black’s terse guitar, and Tyrone Dickerson’s organ colors the performances without overpowering them.
An exercise in pure style, Kaboom! never lets up, and could have benefited from another song like “Dig Deeper.” That title aside, it’s not an especially deep record, although Walker is an engaging singer who navigates the tricky compositions with aplomb. Funk is one of the most locked-in of pop styles, but there are times when one wishes for something that cracked open the music’s formalism to reveal the craziness inside.
Kaboom! makes no bones about its debt to the pioneering funk of 40 years ago. Part of the appeal of revivalist soul and funk is its perceived opposition to sampling and other techniques that have supposedly robbed these older forms of their power. For some of its champions, funk represents the kind of humane music that technology tries to render obsolete.
This is a view that doesn’t take into account funk’s built-in contradictions. Its concentrated rhythms keep us tightened up in a loose world, and its interlocking repetitions remind us that it can be fun to forgo individualism and think of ourselves as pure sex machines.
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needs more candlelight! i like this song.