By JENNIFER KELLY
Psychedelic soul topped the gritty grooves of classic R&B with hallucinatory shimmer, in booty-shaking, mind-altering tunes like the Temptations “Cloud Nine,” Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” and pretty much anything by Sly and the Family Stone. The Monophonics, out of San Francisco, revisit this sound with swagger and style, in a big band configuration that balances the minimalism of funk with a front line of horns. The band had a big hit in its cover of Sonny Bono’s “Bang Bang,” a few years ago, giving the track a noire-ish surf soul bravado that crossed the Budos Band with the Ventures.
The main question is whether a half dozen white Californians can mine a genre so closely linked with civil rights protest music. They do so by stripping psychedelic soul of its political undertones, sticking mostly to done-me-wrong narratives of personal, rather than civil unrest. That works pretty fabulously in “Promises,” the album’s lead track, with its surging waves of sax and horn, its staccato, hip-shifting bass and guitar interplay. Singer Kelly Finnigan (who also plays keyboards) has a scruffy, gritty voice, capable of the deep-digging growls and soulful howls, but not the ethereal falsettos of tripped out soul. “Falling” is another strong cut, the starkness of its main ragged-with-feeling vocal, plushed out with pillowy back-up singing.
The instrumental backing on all these tracks is very good, tightly, sharply syncopated in the foreground, but with florid textures of altered guitar, strings, electronic keyboards and blaring brass to release tension. The Monophonics used to be an all-instrumental band before Finnigan joined, and you can see how it would work pretty well that way.
The Sound of Sinning is a groove all the way through, its slinky vamps and gut-rumbling riffs cresting in satisfying 1970s waves. It is almost certainly a blast in the live setting. Still there’s something safe and conservative in the way it recreates the sonics, but not the revolutionary spirit, of one of the most interesting periods in African American music. Where’s the danger here?
Download: “Promises,” “Falling”