Jesse Fischer and Soul Cycle have been one of Brooklyn’s best party bands for a long time. Their latest album Retro Future is aptly titled: they take a sound indelibly associated with the 70s – jazz-funk with electric keyboards and guitar – and update it for the present. But not in a cheesy way, with autotune and samples, or in a dorky way, with the studied awkwardness and ineptitude of indie rock. This time around, they bring echoes of Ethiopian and Balkan music along with more straight-up jazz than their previous albums.
The first thing you notice about Fischer is that he’s fast. Whether whirling through a Bernie Worrell-style portamento solo, hitting a crashing series of piano chords or rippling through the highs on Fender Rhodes, Marc Cary style, he has ferocious technique. But he doesn’t overdo it: those simply serve as high points in the lush, psychedelic, atmospheric arrangements, this time out alongside David Linaburg on guitar, Solomon Dorsey on bass, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s Gabriel Wallace on drums, Brian Hogans on alto sax, Jean Caze on trumpet, Corey King (of Esperanza Spalding’s band) on trombone and Shawn Banks on percussion.
The dancefloor thud that opens the album is a trick. Titled Tanqueray and Tonic, the citrusy ambience creates a party, and within a minute Wallace has a funky swing going, Fischer’s spinning synth solo echoed memorably by Hogans (whose razor-sharp, smart solos are the high point of this album). Moon Ship takes an easygoing mid-70s Crusaders groove and gives it a big cinematic arrangement with rippling trumpet and a pulsing, suspenseful interlude with the electric piano mingling hypnotically with the sax.
One of the best tracks here is Digital Savanna, which with its enveloping atmospherics and reverb-toned, glimmering upper-register Rhodes evokes a 70s Roy Ayers’ soundtrack piece. Then suddenly it goes doublespeed and segues into Cyberphunk, a trickily rhythmic number (these guys have no fear of “odd” tempos) that hits a high point with a biting, searingly crescendoing Hogans solo. Hogans also wails memorably against the late 70s Weather Report-style ambience of Gotham Underground and does that yet again on the album’s best song, Midnight Dancer, a brisk Ethiopian-flavored romp. The last of the originals is the incisively bouncy Keep the Faith: if you can’t smile at the sheer ridiculous fun of Fischer’s frenetically tone-bending synth solo, you have no soul.
There are three covers here. Age of Aquarius, with Rachel Eckroth taking a breezy, low-key turn on vocals, gets a stoner trip-hop arrangement. To the band’s credit, they don’t try to outdo Hendrix on a similarly low-key, more funky take of Electric Ladyland. The album ends with a mashup: just as you notice that, wow, they’ve just made Radiohead funky, that nauseating Fleetwood Mac song that every first-year guitar student knows enters the picture. Aside from that, it’s all good here. Oh yeah – everything here, you can dance to. There’s also all kinds of free goodies and live tracks up at their Bandcamp site.