Goosepimp Orchestra – Swagadelic Fertilizer Castle (funk/ latin/ jam-band)

self released, 2011, DD album, 48m 6s


Music has many functions, central among which is entertainment. For all that fans of its more abstruse, intellectual forms might claim otherwise, I would argue that it’s a central function of all music; the stuff that seems self-consciously serious, or which adopts a texture at odds with conventional notions of the aesthetic, is still entertainment, it’s just that it’s directed at a particular audience. To those artists who claim to be motivated exclusively by their own creative needs, I’d point out that if they didn’t care about anyone else hearing what they have to say, they wouldn’t say it out loud. Music is an act of communication, and it reaches listeners only inasmuch as it gives them an experience that they find rewarding. Obviously, some musicians embrace their role as entertainers more explicitly than others; it can be difficult to strike a balance between artistic integrity and pleasing the crowd, particularly if the crowd you aim to please is composed of dancers, but not that difficult, and ultimately, it’s a matter of choice. It’s easy enough to spot the music that has abandoned any sense of aesthetic or creative principle: personally, I find it less entertaining, and harder to dance to.

Goosepimp Orchestra, on the other hand… the principal difficulty here is in not dancing so vigorously that you walk into lamp-posts or drive your car into a ditch. Seriously, think about where you listen to this music, because it is not talking to the parts of you that can make sensible decisions about what to do with your limbs: it addresses itself directly to your pelvis. It does so in a traditionalist manner, that is, without artfully studio-crafted kick drums so phat they just physically move you, and without the mechanistic intricacies of sequencing or the post-modern collage of sampling or turntablism. This is a band that has great material, and amazing arrangements, but the way it gets you onto the dancefloor and keeps you there (and bear in mind I’m talking purely on the strength of a recording), is by playing. This is a simply brilliant ensemble, a group of players with enough technique that they don’t feel the need to show it off, and bags of feel, feel so deep you can’t find the bottom. They have the format of an instrumental horn band, something most often associated with jazz, and they play material that variously fuses or alternates between funk, Afro-Cuban and rock. Their arrangements are long and complex, as befits a jam-band, but never noodly: they have enough textural variety and melodic interest to satisfy the most demanding listener, but the solos are always short, well-turned affairs, as much a part of the arrangements as the exquisitely scored ensemble horn parts. The feel and sound is always rootsy and earthy, never slick or cheesy, although much of the material is technically challenging, and would invite less mature musicians to treat it as a chops-fest. Much of the writing includes passages that sound slightly experimental, or off-the-wall, or that adopt a quite uncompromisingly modern jazz vocabulary, and yet it all somehow gets pulled into shape and directed straight at the listeners’ feet. Controlled chaos, with lines spiralling off in multiple directions like a Mingus tune, is always totally locked into the groove; compositional tension is unerringly harnessed to excitement.

Although the keyboard sounds are resolutely electric rather than electronic, I was sometimes reminded of Cuban rock pioneers Los Van Van, but this is one of those bands that can play in a style which, though it never sounds that outlandish or unusual, always sounds like their own. No novelty, but a great deal of originality. Swagadelic Fertilizer Castle is an album that impacts in multiple locations, like a cluster-bomb of musical goodness; I may have already mentioned how danceable it is, but it is also a beautiful listen, with moving, well-contoured melodies, always phrased just so. The approach to harmony is sophisticated and literate, precisely modulating the narrative arc of each piece in a way that will explicitly please those that know what’s going on, and will simply keep everyone else rapt. It’s an accomplished piece of studio craft, as well: every instrumental voice is captured with a clear but raw tone, and the whole sound is incredibly live, both in terms of the performances and the mastering. For me, the voice that emerges most distinctly from the ensemble in the bass, which is a continual sinuous presence, telling the tale that the rest of the band embellishes, and speaking in a gritty, woody bark, that has presence without boom (more kudos to the recording/ mix/ mastering). The principal impression of the ensemble is one of unity, however. This is music for the booty, but also for the heart and the mind, conceived and performed with passion and intelligence.

So, clearly, I like this sort of thing; but anyone who knows me, or who reads my reviews regularly, will know that I like a lot of kinds of thing. If there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s music that’s stylistically generic, that simply takes a set of received musical materials and regurgitates them as found. Well, Goosepimp Orchestra, don’t do anything particularly groundbreaking, but they have chosen to work in an idiom, and are able to work with a degree of musical sophistication, that permits a huge amount of creativity and original thought to go into the music they make. There are enough ideas in one of their songs for a couple of albums from some contemporary hardcore bands (naming no names), but despite this potentially overwhelming blizzard of invention and musical sophistication, every moment is devastatingly good fun to listen to and move to. Bingo!

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