Nostalgia 77 is the studio project and pseudonym of British artist Ben Lamdin. Most well-known in the states for its great funk cover of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” Nostalgia 77 is also responsible for a long series of inventive, genre-bending studio albums. Nostalgia 77′s newest venture, The Sleepwalking Society (out March 22 on Tru Thoughts), involves the kind of songs you might easily dismiss as background music at a coffee shop. That would be a tragic mistake. An unusual hybrid of classic jazz, funk, folk and pop, it’s a deceptively complex project only disguised as easy listening.
The tunes themselves are scattered—sometimes they sound like Coltrane, sometimes gospel, sometimes atonal and modern. The lilting vocals of German singer Josa Peit serve as an important grounding factor. (Peit sounds a lot like Joan Osbourne: She has a smoky voice that’s suited to slow, moody songs.) The Sleepwalking Society also maintains a central groove thanks to the driving force of a baritone saxophone and improvised jazz solos that feel like they were belted out at some film noir, smoke-filled bar.
The rhythms can get lost under the hypnotic, trance-like qualities of the music and are often too muted. The Sleepwalking Society works best when Lamdin is expanding on traditional structures to build something new. Songs like the album opener, “Sleepwalker,” which starts out with an offbeat bass line and a funk-inspired horn section, demonstrate this inventive quality best. The slow-burning, melancholic “Mockingbird” keeps things interesting with disillusioned vocals (“Father, father, you’re gonna be a father now/You’re all grown up; never felt more like a child”), while others, like “Hush,” veer into boringly familiar musical territory.
Though jazz comes across as the album’s dominant musical influence, those unfamiliar with the genre will still find something to like here: The album is deceptively simple, but underneath the easy-listening vibe lies a fascinating medley of genres and musical references.