Where do I start with this album? This review will probably be as much of a broad testament to my affinity for the band and recollections of concert snippets as much as a treatment of the album itself.
Like any act that has retained my interest over an extended number of years and releases, the Mastersounds are perpetually expanding into a different direction. Not genre-bustingly or radically, like an artist such as Beck does with each successive disc–but in their own way NMS has probed off into opposing directions while remaining within the contemporary funk vein. Not just “rooted” in funk like so many bands who are jacks-of-all-trades-but-masters-of-none, but actually remaining IN contemporary funk, as in, this entire album, track-by-track is nothing but funk.
The second or third time I had seen the Mastersounds I was at the Double Door club in Chicago with my good friend Vincent. Several songs into their set, the band dropped down into a minimal groove, with Simon Allen settling into a 4-on-the-floor disco beat while the energy simmered on low heat. Just as the lighting guy engaged the ‘tripped-out’ function, Vincent turned around with a big smile on his face and shouted “They do THIS?!”
Ten Years on is a bit like that for me. I remember the first time I heard the tune “The Road to Fuji Rock” was at a live performance, and after the show my buddy Bill asked me what the highlight was. I answered ‘their new tune that sounded like a Greyboy thing’–and he knew which one I was talking about. Ten Years On has a number of tracks that are quintessential Mastersounds style (San Frantico, Make Me Proud, Chocolate Chip) but a solid chunk of the album sounds like the band convoluting itself with another favorite act of mine, the Greyboy Allstars.
What I mean by that is that raw, ripping vintage sound of “102%” has been largely traded in for mellower timbres here, allowing us to check out an equally soulful and virtuosic version of the band in a more relaxed atmosphere. The compressors and the reverb have been dialed back a couple notches and thus we have an album that could be an ideal soundtrack for a leisurely drive around town on the weekend, or companion to a cold beer at 6pm on a Friday evening with no real plans for the night. Simultaneously, it remains dance-able with plenty of get-up-n-go. It’s that rare two-headed monster, like Thievery Corporation’s “Outernational Sound”.
“Soulshine” is the first hint of where things are going–Simon lays down those skins with bravado while Roberts sports his new, more relaxed approach. Pete’s bass playing jumps up high for some dashes of clever groove punctuation while remaining rocksteady down low, intertwined transparently with most of Roberts parts as he is for the majority of the time. From here the association gets more obvious: “Flimsy”, with Joe on the Piano (as opposed to B3 or rhodes) with the whistles and the Nawlins-flavored drumming is overtly reminiscent of “Quantico, VA”. The aforementioned ‘Fuji Rock’ calls to mind the same type of calm but persistently driving energy of “Happy Friends” from Greyboy’s classic album, A Town Called Earth. But don’t take that to mean that Ten Years is a knock off of the so-called left-coast boogaloo, or even a consistent tribute–aside from the assertively characteristic NMS flavor on San Frantico and company as previously mentioned, there’s a whole other slew of colored-gels through which to see the band.
That disco-beat flavor which caught Vincent off guard is in here on “Cielo”, with Roberts working his signature style backed by Tatton with a tapestry of buzzing synthesizers and what sounds like a bit of ring-modulator. Call it electric-funk disco. It’s only a small stretch to say NMS dishes out a bit of Sound Tribe Sector 9′s territory on this one. I’d definitely like to hear more of whatever spawned this composition.
The following cut “Ooom” features guest avant-sax master Skerik in a decidedly mellow idiom. Typically I associate this guy with crazy freakouts and wildness-for-the-sake-of-wildness, but instead the Mastersounds have him playing minimal lines with overdubbed harmonies and a slow, deliberate solo, as if each phrase had been obsessively contemplated in advance. It’s like the got him into the studio and said “okay, now you’re the man and everything… buuuuuuut we-need-you-to-be-more-like-Rob-Lowe-on-102.” This is a Skerik I could come to love. His airy, thoughtful delivery is a stark counterpoint to the raucous squawking, and shows his talent sans the avant-insanity, which I can live without. A gem.
“Dusty Groove” is a tribute to the Chicago record store which was the first outlet to carry their albums in the USA; a fact I learned through the band’s charmingly extensive between-song banter at one of their shows. And speaking of those shows, this is one cut that slices hard and thick when thumping out of a live PA. Roberts glides deftly through those blues-scale riffs and comps with aplomb heavy as anywhere in the catalog. We also get a delightful taste of Tatton’s funky “ON” setting as Allen lays into his ride. This is the Joe Tatton I love. The first time I ever saw the Mastersounds, outdoors at Wicker Park Fest in Chicago, his keys blew me away. A riff in his solo on their cover of “Six Underground” was my phone ringtone for over a year.
Since then, I’ve gone back and forth about Tatton on those keys, at times complaining about his demeanor as detached and bored during the live shows, an attitude mirrored with accordingly lazy playing. Sometimes I feel like Joe is content to simply phone-it-in on those off-nights, of which I have seen a couple. I was bemoaning this wooden delivery in their first performance at the Bear Creek music festival last year and my friend Bill was having none of it. In the latter performance at the same festival Tatton was the opposite beast entirely; making lots of eye contact, and getting very tenacious with his riffs. A few bars before the conclusion of “San Frantico” he slipped in a cascading jab in the space Roberts’ melody left open, so dense and tricky that Bill and I literally both raised one eyebrow high and looked at one another for a split second with the identical expression, speechless really, before looking back to watch the ending, dumbfounded. It was a priceless moment. The guy’s clearly got it, at least when he wants to dish it out. I wish he would display such ambition more often.
That much said, previous Mastersounds albums have been, for me at least, utterly dominated by the genius of Eddie Roberts guitar playing; his tone, his mastering techniques, his clean articulation and his tasty comping. If any one man leads the pack in today’s school of contemporary funk guitarists, it’s Eddie Roberts. Eric Krazno may be a better soloist, and Elgin Park may have the perfect guitar tone (I think it’s that big, curly telephone-style cable he uses to connect to the amp) and Sergio Rios of Orgone may have his own unique thing going, but Eddie Roberts is the only guy who’s got it ALL: The best rhythm playing you could ask for, masterful use of gear for a signature tone, great solos, a pitch-perfect producer, and a goofy, endearing stage presence to boot. Roberts does on the guitar what George Porter does on the bass–steals the show, even when you’re not supposed to be paying attention to him!
Given my admiration of Roberts, Ten Years On may be the first NMS album where I’ve felt equally captivated by the creativity of what’s going on in the keyboard parts. I refer to 102% often, as the prior high-water mark for the band, and it is. Update: (corrections/additions after chatting with Simon!) On 102% and prior albums, keys were performed by Bob Birch, an avid collector of Hammond equipment. A good chunk of Plug & Play was vocal-oriented, which didn’t give a lot of room for the kind of instrumental exploration and long-windedness (which is why I sign up for this stuff) like you’ll find on Ten Years. So thusly, this is Tatton’s first outing with the group where he really get space and license to stretch things out and paint with the full palette of keys.
A few extra noteworthy details on those keys: Plug & Play was recorded with a Nord Electro, which does sound surprisingly good, as I return to that album for another listen. That Nord is really quite the excellent keyboard, for what it is. Not a full B3, but admirably close! On Ten Years, a variety of B3/leslie combinations were used. I must say, the tone of the organ sounds great on this disc, to my ears. The presence of the other keyboard types in here (piano/synths/& a good scoop o’ Rhodes) makes the Ten Years landscape more sonically diverse and gives the able Tatton more voices with which to tell a captivating tale. (Only thing we’re missing is some clav.)
A question I’m sure someone reading this has, is how does the vinyl copy sound compared to the CD? Indeed on the back of the record jacket, it says “Vinyl mastering by Pete Norman at Finyl Tweek.” Comparing my CD copy I bought a while back with this new vinyl version, the LP sounds brighter, more articulate. Particularly with the organ, I hear more subtle details of the B3 attack on each note. Now, it may be that what I’m describing here is simply the timbrel characteristics of my turntable. But for what it’s worth, that’s the difference I hear when doing A/B comparisons between the two masterings, on headphones and a great set of loudspeakers. For those so inclined, check out a spectral analysis comparison of the first 2 bars of Fuji Rock below. These graphs show the frequencies present in those 2 bars; not as informative as an actual Frequency Response chart, but it gives you an idea of the difference. Note the smoother curve on the vinyl version, both down low at 150Hz and again up at about 15kHz. Click to see it full size if you want to probe deeper.
I’m happy to see Tatton out front with bombastic solos, playing more keyboard types with a tweaked-up B3 tone. As much as I adore the all-out assault of full-on Eddie Roberts, it’s a joy to see him kick his feet up and take it nice’n'easy here. Allen and Shand are as locked-in as ever; so effectively that most of the time I find myself considering the “groove” instead of the bass playing or the drumming. With Ten Years On, it sounds like the band has hit it’s stride–confident and well-worn with a tightness that belies years of musical camaraderie. They come out sounding like they’ve got nothing to prove (as indeed they have already proven it!) but they are anything but finished saying something. Instead, the musical conversation has matured into an exposition of both greater nuance and wider stylistic breadth. For a band Ten Years into their career, it’s inspiring to see them produce a record like this: expanding into new territory while still retaining the original appeal, writing funk that could be equally appropriate for chillin on the couch with a good brew or sweatin on the dusty dance floor of a music festival in Florida. While I look forward to seeing what direction the boys take next, intuition tells me this LP will remain my favorite album from my favorite band, for a good stretch of time to come.