June 18, 2014

Jonah Bromwich is just super-boring, you guys.

Stones Throw trio The Stepkids have the kind of formal musical chops that you’d expect from session players who spent years touring with big-name acts, including Lauryn Hill and Alicia Keys. But formidable musical technique doesn’t always translate into songs with the energy and charisma you’d like to see from a main attraction and The Stepkids were hampered early in their 2011 run by mundane lyrics and staid—for performers, that is–personalities.

Thankfully, instead of straining to overcompensate for not being the second coming of James Brown, Jeff Gitelman, Dan Edinberg, and Tim Walsch have let their music get weird on their behalf. The best songs on their second release, Troubadour, played with pop structure with gleeful abandon, proving the maxim that you have to know what the rules are in order to break them. And a mini EP, released by Stones Throw yesterday as a kind of summer goodie, finds them venturing farther into the screwball Funk&B that has animated their strongest tracks to date.

The title track here, “Wanderers,” contains the same minor-key, psychedelic intrigue that powered offerings on Troubador, only here, ominous, paranoia prima whistling and screeching heightens the feeling of edgy unreality. At its most organized, in its processional middle section, the track feels like something Arthur Lee could have come up with in the mid 70’s.  But soon enough, the threat becomes real, the bottom falls out and The Stepkids buzz about chaotically in a literal and figurative breakdown.

The other songs here are more upbeat but no less odd.  “Fading Star,” brings Neal Young’s classic burn out or fade away? question to schizophrenic life, in one of the group’s strongest songwriting efforts to date,  one which boosts the group beyond the campy feel of their usual lyrical approach into real existential crisis. “The Slap,” meanwhile, is Herbie Hancock’s Future-Shock funk with bits of Stevie and Devo thrown in for good measure.

All the songs on Wanderers find The Stepkids doing what all professionals should do during the offseason: refining their old talents, developing new ones, and running with every half-baked idea that comes along in the spirit of a Clay Christensen alcolyte. I’m not sure how well these songs would fit into a traditionally formatted LP.  As they’re presented though, they’re lovely little experiments, the sound of a group slowly growing into itself, honing a musical identity that doesn’t require a tired song and dance routine in order to attract new fans.

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