People whose names appear on albums are often not ‘professional musicians’ in the sense of someone who has honed their skills and technique in the exacting and instrumental way that implies. They are more often people whose primary drive could be summarised with a term like ‘self-expression’, or ‘creative fulfilment’—singers, songwriters or bands performing their own material—or else they are people trained to front a complex operation involving a whole team of other professionals who stay largely away from the public eye. I’m not suggesting that ‘professionals’ aren’t motivated by creative concerns, of course, and there’s plenty of overlap—Lady Gaga was a professional songwriter before she began her own recording career. But there is a difference in approach and attitude, as well as in their roles within the industry.
Often when the pros make their own records the results disappoint me—anodyne, insipid instrumental rock or fusion-lite albums, that may find a large audience, but which I find impossible to remember even after repeated, self-flagellating attempts to find the value in them. But at other times, all of that trade-craft, those finely honed ears for the perfect balance in an arrangement, and that intuitive, ego-free understanding of when to let rip as a player and when to hang back, come together to produce a sublime distillation of commercial sounds. Such is Cory Wong’s debut album, Cory Wong and the Green Screen Band.
This is a record of joyous virtuosity, not in the manner of jazz or metal, but in the sense my friend Tim ‘Love’ Lee intended when he coined the term ‘Yes Wave’ to describe the music he was releasing on his label Tummy Touch Records. Some of the instrumental parts here are very hard to play—although many others are perfectly straightforward—and the arrangements are tightly co-ordinated, subtly nuanced tissues of interwoven parts which have as much in common spiritually with the Baroque fugue as they do with many recordings in similar stylistic territory. These are songs and instrumentals in exuberant celebration of the joy that music can elicit, and that developed professional skills can enable. There is much to admire here, much technical artistry for the music nerd to enjoy, but such an informed recognition of the skills in play is no kind of pre-requisite to enjoying the music.
It’s a very old-fashioned affair, a collection of funk tunes (shot-through with a subtle vein of other American musics like bluegrass and jazz), recorded more or less in the way that such things were recorded in the 1970s, with fat bass, crisp drums, chiming guitars and dazzling brass. Wong himself has used the term ‘vibrant funk soul’ music in describing the apprenticeship he served in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, and that’s a good term for this. His guitar is front and centre, producing an array of grooves and textures, but then so is the bass, which is unusually high in the mix, and so are the vocals when they’re present—every element in the music is appreciated and celebrated. I found an almost inexpressible joyfulness and energy from listening to this album, which has been my constant companion for several months. It was Wong’s first release, only three years ago, but there have been many more recordings since then, and I’m going to enjoy spending time with them in the future. This is, simply put, about as good as contemporary funk and soul can get.