Like trying to describe Stevie Wonder jamming on Sesame Street’s psychedelic Pinball Number Count, the Stepkids may cause many a mystified listener to over-indulge in the hyphen. Tim Walsh, Jeff Gitelman and Dan Edinberg have made it their business to be un-pigeonhole-able, spanning every genre from jazz fusion to country-folk ballad, inspiring ridiculously flailing terms like electro-psych-jazz-neo-funk-soul-pop-thing. Concocting style-defying throwbacks for the 21st century listener, Troubadour, the group’s second release on Stones Throw Records, tackles life, love and the music industry amid a cacophony of experimental, measured jamming.
The Stepkids are of a boisterous breed of music geeks taking soul, jazz and funk off their hallowed pedestal, pulling them to pieces and returning a Frankenstein fusion to the podium. The Connecticut trio, who joined forces in 2000 while playing separately in touring bands for big deals Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill and 50 Cent, released their self-titled, self-produced debut album to many a high-five from critics in 2011. This second record sets sail on its funk-soul journey with opening track, Memoirs of Grey, and its splintered harmonies and pulsing bass laying the scene for the next hour of weird and wonderful tracks. Possibly the most palatable is the latest single, The Lottery,, released in July. A playful, stick-in-your-head jazz fusion number with harmonies to make the Gibb Brothers sigh up an octave, it wouldn’t seem out of place on an Earth, Wind and Fire or Steely Dan LP. The layered vocals, fluttering saxophones and strut-worthy basslines channel Detroit jammer Moodymann.
Dreamy falsettos, tight harmonies and playful narration aren’t shiny new toys for the Stepkids, already fully acknowledged on their debut. But after extensive touring with vox heavyweights Stevie Wonder, Kimbra and Mayer Hawthorne, the playful, tinny reverb of the first album seems to have been tightened up. Troubadour focuses vocal arrangements at the forefront of tracks like the Crosby, Stills and Nash-like Symmetry and the eclectic sampler Bitter Bug.
Paying homage to their heroes past and present with technical mastery, the Stepkids make blatant nods to a swag of soul, funk and jazz greats, channeling Prince in the super catchy, largely instrumental Sweet Salvation; while the continual jazz fusion moments often harken back to the experimental escapades of Miles Davis’ 1968 masterpiece, Miles In The Sky, where the brassmaster found his own splintered style.
Numerous nostalgic nods can at times prove alienating and even exhausting for non-crate-digging listeners, however this well-listened trio seem to pull it off with a genuine lack of smug superiority. The Stepkids find their most impressive footing when they’re at their weirdest and most original. Tracks like Sweet Salvation and Bitter Bug use eclectic arrangements and experimental genre-melding to demand full attention. And Desert In The Dark stands out with bouncy, psychedelic electro-pop framing lyrics like, “I’m in the desert of your mind,” and an Atari-like bridge and arrangement reminiscent of early-80s David Bowie.
Troubadour is an album made for multiple replays, with each listen unearthing new features and missed details. Though the Stepkids themselves seem undecided on their signature sound, they boast a refreshing reluctance to limit possibility that ultimately translates into a truly original style of their own.