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Damian Quiñones Brings His Edgy, Individualistic, Psychedelic Latin Soul Uptown

It was fun to see Damian Quiñones y Su Conjunto rock the back room at their most recent appearance at Barbes a few weeks ago. It’s an intimate space, and for that reason, other than the blazing Balkan brass groups – Slavic Soul Party, Raya Brass Band, et al. – who play here, the club doesn’t book a lot of loud music. While Quiñones draws on an early 70s Nuyorican sound popularized by cult favorites like the Ghetto Brothers, his songs rock harder than most of that era’s latin soul bands. And he’s an individualistic songwriter who draws more on classic pop structures, a la Elvis Costello, than on longform latin psychedelic acts like Santana. He and the band are playing Silvana in Harlem on Dec 13 at 10 PM, which should work out well since they have the muscle to be heard over the chatty Saturday night bar crowd there.

At Barbes, Quiñones sang in both English and Spanish, backed by a purist, bluesy lead guitarist, tight bass and drums, a keyboardist who doubled on trombone, and a conguero and alto saxophonist who came up for most of the second half of the show. Quiñones is a lefty, which might help explain his interesting guitar technique; that, and his mix of traditional Puerto Rican and rock sounds. He and the band opened with Sleepy Eyes, which is basically Billy Joel’s It’s Still Rock & Roll to Me with better vocals, jazzier harmonies and some rhythmic trickery. Quiñones opened the next number with a wickedly catchy four-chord hook that he then jazzed up over a steady, strutting rhythm, doubling the bassline as the song peaked coming out of the chorus.

He started another song solo, as nebulous acidically jangly early 80s postpunk – then in a second it morphed into a catchy, anthemic bossa-rock tune with swirly organ in the background that reminded of the late, great Williamsburg band the Disclaimers. The lead player took a long, slithery, blues-infused solo on a bouncy number that was sort of a latin soul update on Wilbert Harrison’s Kansas City – and then added a long slide solo for an strangely successful southern rock touch.

Quiñones switched from guitar to cuatro for some Byrdsy jangle over a syncopated clave beat on the instrumental that followed, evoking one of Yomo Toro’s more adventurous, low-key numbers from the 80s. They followed that with a slinky, salsa-inflected lowrider psychedelic tune, the sax and trombone conversing and intertwining. From there they lept from hard funk into a long, hypnotic psychedelic cumbia, a galloping instrumental and then back into  expansive, psychedelic mode. It’s not often you see a band that has this much going on, yet with so much focus and drive: attributes that will pay off at the show uptown.

Rich Purist Psychedelic Soul/Rock Sounds from Damian Quiñones

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.