Damian Quiñones y Su Conjunto’s new album Gumball Ma-Jumbo – streaming in its entirety online – is a masterpiece of tunesmithing, an intricate mix of oldschool late 60s style psychedelic soul, rock and pop spiced with salsa, luscious horn charts, bubbling keys and nasty guitars. Quiñones is the man on the fretboard, jangling, slashing and taking all sorts of solos that blend sunbaked psychedelia with a terse, bluesy edge: he doesn’t waste a note. Likewise, as ornate as his arrangements can be, those don’t waste notes either. It’s one of the best albums of 2012.
Interestingly, the opening track is a wickedly catchy oldschool roots reggae song, a style that Quiñones will only come back to once here, but he nails it, with swirly organ, melodica flourishes, echoey tremoloing guitar and a lush horn chart. He follows that with the only song that really references anything after, say, 1975; it’s an attempt to blend retro 90s and 60s Britpop and it doesn’t really work. But the track after that is a treat – Barrio, pulsing along on a slinky clave beat, juxtaposes Fania-era Puerto Rican soul with a burning powerpop chorus and a tense, suspenseful interlude featuring two basslines. After that, Quiñones takes a pulsing soul song and makes it funkier every time the verse comes around, driven by blazing horns and judiciously slashing guitar fills.
Flyers starts out skeletal but quickly brings in a heavier psychedelic soul vibe: Quiñones’ distorted wah solo over Edwin Canito Garcia’s raw, slinky bassline after the second chorus is one of the highlights of the album. After Laura Mulholland’s tumbling piano intro, Malachi hits a punchy, swaying Big Star groove, Quiñones’ long, searing solo taking the song doublespeed until the end, where he doubletracks another solo alongside it: the effect is intense to say the least. The band follows that with I Know That You That I, blending 60s soul with noir Orbison pop.
What might be the best song – and definitely the best lyric – is Recuredos de Inez, sung in Spanish. Another richly arranged roots reggae tune, it builds to a majestic, regretful, noirishly anthemic crescendo lit up by artfully arranged horns. Or, the best song here might be the unexpectedly sarcastic, dismissive One Trick Pony, funky soul building to a scorching chorus and a series of jagged solos panning between the left and right channels: “It’s hard to discuss where you’ve been with a shoeshine part-time attitude,” Quiñones snarls.
The rest of the album includes Ollie Ollie Oxen Free, a psychedelically funky number like vintage Tower of Power but with more of a guitar-fueled edge; Shadow in the Sun, early 60s noir pop as Arthur Lee might have done it – but with a disco beat – and French Tickler, a tango-rock epic. What links all this together is that Quiñones and his band never play a verse or chorus the same way twice. There’s always a cool addition or subtraction, a subtle accent or rumble from drummer Seth Johnson or percussionist Brian Higbie, or a swell from the brass: trumpeters Brian Baker and Geoffrey Hull and trombonist Gregorio Hernandez lock together and rise like a single mighty horn. It gets better with repeated listening. Watch this space for upcoming shows.