Slavic Soul Party’s New York Underground Tapes: Intense As Always

by delarue

As usual, the corporate media gets it all wrong. Brooklyn isn’t about Bushwick blog-rock. That’s a tiny clique of one-percenters who don’t really care much about music, anyway: their thing is all about fashion, and memes, and pseudo-celebrity. And much as music in Brooklyn may have become completely balkanized, there are innumerable small, self-sustaining scenes that continue to flourish just under the radar: country music, oldtime string bands, hip-hop, bachata and not ironically, Balkan music. Brooklyn’s best-loved Balkan export, Slavic Soul Party continue their Tuesday night 9 PM residency at Barbes when they’re not playing much larger clubs around the world. For those who might take this mighty, funky, genre-smashing nine-man brass band for granted, they’ve got a new album out appropriately titled The New York Underground Tapes. A little earlier this year their fellow Brooklynites Raya Brass Band put out a phenomenal album, Dancing on Roses, Dancing on Cinders and this is just as good.

How is it that this music, with its tricky tempos and frequently menacing microtonalities, has become so popular? Maybe because it’s so good! It’s about time the rest of the world caught up with what the Serbians and Macedonians and the rest of the people in the former Eastern Bloc have known for centuries. But what Slavic Soul Party does isn’t just traditional songs. Over the last couple of years, they’ve been mixing Balkan brass music with James Brown, adding hip-hop flavor and poking fun at techno; this new album is just as eclectic. The opening track, Jackson, is typical: punchy, bluesy soul trumpet over a Balkan hook, a mesh of biting close harmonies, a blazing bop jazz trumpet solo and finally Peter Stan switching from his accordion to organ to add subtle, staccato textures on the way out. And it gets better from there.

Ominous low swells anchor the rapidfire microtones of the horns on Sing Sing Cocek, with an unexpected thematic change mid-song. Brasslands – a pun on Glasslands, the unairconditioned Williamsburg sweatbox venue, maybe? – sounds like a Serbian brass band taking a stab at a Mexican folk song, while the aptly titled Romp begins with fast waves of accordion over a suspensefully stalking tune and then goes into brisk gypsy swing. Bass drummer Matt Moran’s arrangement of Draganin Cocek is one of the best songs of the year: it’s looser and more dangerous than anything else here, with dark, Arabic-tinged hooks, a tensely smoldering Matt Musselman trombone solo and a lushly delicious crescendo. It’s a song without words, basically – where is their sometime frontwoman Eva Salina Primack when they need her?

Who is Walter Hurley? There’s a band director at Oxon Hill High School in Maryland with that name, and if this song is about that guy, he’s kind of funny – the tune begins as a caricature and almost imperceptibly shifts back to the minor-key intensity of the rest of the album. Clarinetist Peter Hess kicks off his composition Ahmet Gankino, jamming out the highs over suspensefully pulsing lows, eventually building to a shivery, pulsing call-and-response with joyous syncopated low brass, followed eventually by a machine-gun accordion solo. It’s a bigtime party anthem – as are all these songs, for that matter, no surprise considering that what they’re playing is dance music.

There are three more tracks here. The brief Alcohol to Arms, by Moran, has fun with an action movie theme. Underneath all the stabbing, there’s a balmy ballad underneath Moran’s arrangement of the traditional tune Zvonce. The whole band – besides Stan, Moran, Musselman and Hess, there’s John Carlson and Kenny Warren on trumpet and truba, Tim Vaughn on trombone, Chris Stomquist on snare and percussion and Ron Caswell on tuba – tackles a brutally difficult, pinpoint-precise staccato arrangement and makes it seem effortless. The album closes with Jonas Muller’s clever Last Man Standing, the whole band having fun portraying a drunk guy as he staggers and slurs and tries to keep up with the tune. Beside the usual digital formats, the band also recorded a song on a wax cylinder in case you have ten grand to burn. Calling all Bushwick bloggers!

Slavic Soul Party are at the Jewish Museum this Wednesday, July 19 at 7:30 PM; $15 ($12 for students) gets you in plus open wine/beer bar plus free kosher ice cream.