“You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs,” sang Paul McCartney. Well that’s no problem for Uncle Nef, because their Love Songs aren’t silly, they’re – unusual.
Uncle Nef are comprised of New Orleans jazz drummer Shannon Powell, and his young apprentice and NOLA incomer Darren Hoffman, a multi-instrumentalist who for the purposes of Love Songs focuses largely on guitar playing of a less than straight up variety.
|Uncle Nef(few) - across the generational divide|
What we have across the 11 tracks here are a variety of originals and covers, instrumentals and songs, with Powell supplying most of the lead vocals in his rich, relaxed voice, starting with ‘That Was That’. A break-up song in a real sloooooow tempo, it opens with birdsong, followed by quaking guitar notes from Hoffman before Powell weighs in on a soulful melody, and then as is his wont triggers a Hoffman solo with a “Come on son” aside. With an organ solo from Paul David Longstreth, and hooting sax from guest Morgan Guerin combining with Hoffman’s guitar, it’s a good entrée for the mixture that follows.
The four instrumentals take on less traditional textures. The scratchy bleep and squeak of ‘Cabrito’ has drum rhythms and guitar lines vying for dominance before clicking into synch. On Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Jam 292’, Hoffman’s exploratory, wiry wah-wah guitar jostles for attention with swirling organ from Kyle Roussel around a handful of themes, while on ‘A-Side’ a repetitive riff alternates with another guitar refrain, until Hoffman kicks in with another warbling wah-wah solo from some peculiar Hendrixian dimension. Edgier still is the Kurt Cobain composition ‘tourette’s’, on which a rudimentary riff is picked as single notes, and as it’s repeated gradually metamorphoses into fuzzy chords over mounting cymbal tapping from Powell, prefacing some spikier guitar licks from Hoffman.
But if all that sounds a bit wacky, they sweeten the mix with the likes of Louis Jordan’s‘Caldonia’, giving it a bass heavy, loose and fun jump blues treatment, and Fats Domino’s ‘Sick And Tired’, with Kyle Roussel responsible for its great rolling piano figure, and also a tasty, jazzy solo. And ‘Beat To Eat’ has an offbeat sound, over fast-ticking metronome-like percussion, as if James Brown has lost the ‘one’ – or maybe it’ll remind you of the Flying Lizards’ version of ‘Money’, who can tell? Either way, it’s infectious.
|Evidently a bargain deal on purple shirts|
In a different vein, ‘It Hurts’ is an achingly romantic song, opening with the sound of lapping waves, before introducing warped, echoing guitar notes and strung out violin and viola courtesy of guest Abby Swindler, while Hoffman delivers his only lead vocal in a semi-spoken style that suggests Scott Walker.
They close with the ancient classic, ‘St James Infirmary Blues’, founding it on grinding, deep down guitar notes over which Powell delivers a bluesy vocal, supported by sweet backing vocals from Topsy Chapman and Solid Harmony, before Hoffman gets into slow, shivering guitar notes over abrupt organ from Longstreth. It may be tense and modern, but it’s still got deep roots.
Uncle Nef are not what you’d call predictable. Just when you think they’re about to soar off into an experimental sphere, they come back to earth with a nod to blues history – albeit still from an odd angle. Love Songs is a quirky, sophisticated album that’ll keep you on your toes.
Love Songs was released on Ropeadope Records on 21 October.