Menahan Street Band

If the outrageously high score doesn’t make you sit up and take notice of the Menahan Street Band, and the fact that they’re probably responsible for several of your favorite records of the last few years doesn’t reel you in, then hopefully the next few hundred words of unabashed praise will do the trick. Because trust me, if you like soul--hell, if you like music--you need this band in your life.

The Crossing  is their second LP, following their 2008 debut Make The Road By Walking. It's been a long time coming, mainly because Menahan have been so damn busy the last four years. They cut the sensational Charles Bradley album No Time For Dreaming, bandleader Tommy Brenneck helmed the third Budos Band album, saxophonist Leon Michels co-produced not one, but two classic soul LPs for Lee Fields My World and Faithful Man, and it’s not like Nick Movshon (bass), Dave Guy (trumpet) and Homer Steinwess (drums) have been inactive either. Their status as members of the Dap-Kings speaks for itself, and we could be all day listing the superstars they’ve played with off their own bat, so to save time just pick an A-grade artist (The Black Keys, Wu-Tang, Amy Winehouse) and nod your head in appreciation. But we’re not here to talk about what the Menahan has done for other people. We’re here to talk about the monstrous record they’ve just made themselves.

Menahan Street Band was originally conceived by Brenneck as “a soul group with Ethiopian influences” and formed out of a collection of friends who had been playing for years together in various groups and formations. Their first 45 was sampled by Jay-Z for “Roc Boys” and the rest was history. Well, sadly Menahan didn’t go on to conquer the world, but they did go on to make a thoroughly satisfying and impressive debut LP. It was, as per Brenneck’s manifesto, a beautiful soul record with tinges of Mulatu Astatke, where the trumpets blared, the beats rocked and everything was in the right place. A record to bring sunshine on a rainy day and peace into your life.

Now they’re back with The Crossing, and it’s even better. Darker, deeper, diverser, harder. Brenneck has described it as the “music to an unreleased Sergio Leone western starring the Wu-Tang set in 1992”, but that doesn’t quite do justice to what we’ve got here (even though it’s probably the better of the two Wu affiliated film soundtracks released this month). The Wu-Tang allusion is actually a bit of a red herring, for while the drums are heavy and the mood is suitably dark and brooding, that’s about where the comparisons stop.

This is a soul record, a remarkably broad (and tight) soul record. The foundation is still the horns that attracted Jigga back in the day and they lead much of the record, providing much of the narrative thread. They’re haunting on “The Crossing” and triumphant on “Keep Coming Back”, but the track on which they really shine is “Three Faces.” It begins as a slow, mournful lament, before doing a complete about-face and launching into a raucous chorus line. It’s the perfect synthesis of soul and Ethiopian jazz that the Menahan strive for, and like every song here, it’s fantastic.

“The Crossing” has to be the song with the best use of a ukulele ever (it gives you the creeps, but in a perversely enjoyable way), “Lights Out” is a funky beast that sweeps all before it, “Seven Is The Wind” a slide guitar driven swamp monster, the synth on “Bullet For The Bagman” is plain eerie, while “Every Day A Dream” provides some much needed light distraction. The Crossing was written and recorded at night, hence the occasionally oppressive mood, but every track rocks with a swing and swagger that gives the album classic status.

All in all, it’s the sound of a bunch of musicians from the top of the game performing at the top of their game. Ruthlessly tight, deeply soulful with tunes to keep you riveted to your stereo until deep into the night. Their brother in arms, Charles Bradley, once said in an interview to okay player that “soul music is something you can’t express.” Well, on The Crossing Menahan Street Band come pretty damn close.

- Will Georgi