Monophonics | It’s Only Us | (Colemine)
4 out of 5 stars
Back in the day, there were record labels you could trust would release music of consistently high quality. You may not have loved every Motown, Stax, Hi or Sun act, but there was little chance that it wasn’t worth listening to. With contemporary distribution, streaming and other changes in the overall record industry, much of that aesthetic is gone. Thankfully though, Daptone, Colemine and a few other imprints have gained and maintained a reputation for not only musical excellence but also reliable genre control.
Which brings us to the Monophonics. The West Coast sextet has been slinging out their retro R&B—they dub it “psychedelic soul”– for a variety of companies since 2007’s debut. They finally landed at Colemine which provides a perfect outlet for the music they, and their label, create.
It’s a heady mix for deep soul followers. Take some Norman Whitfield-era Temptations, add Sly and the Family Stone circa There’s a Riot Goin’ On’s greasy funk, inject early 70s Curtis Mayfield Superfly, Marvin Gaye vocal dynamics and Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul dust, sprinkle in a pinch of Isley Brothers’ silky ballads and you’ve got a reasonable aural idea of the ballpark Monophonics are playing in. Fans of St. Paul & the Broken Bones and The Revivalists are a natural for the Monophonics’ similarly styled approach.
Songs such as “Suffocating” and “All in the Family” with their plush horns, backing female singers and frontman Kelly Finnigan’s yearning falsetto vocals capture a distinct style of a largely forgotten era. But it’s the classy production and complex yet rootsy arrangements that push these tunes over the top. The strings and synths that kick off “Tunnel Vision” bring an ominous vibe to a track that could be a love theme for any of a number of 70’s Blaxploitation flicks. The reverbed saturated guitar that kicks off and appears intermittently in “Run for Your Life” seems nabbed from a James Bond soundtrack and Latin percussion with female backing singers bring that extra dollop of cinematic slickness. While “It’s Only Us” with its Philly groove could be a lost Hall & Oates B-side, there is no doubt Monophonics have their fingers on the pulse of often sensual, quiet storm, bedroom music that few other bands are working today, and even less who do it as well.
The “I want you girl” lyrics are secondary to the music primarily because lead vocalist Finnigan, who not only wrote them but produced the album, generally keeps his singing hovering just under the surface. But he sounds sincere and heartbroken… and that’s all that matters. While the mysterious yet sumptuous vibe wears thin with tunes that start to sound similar about halfway though, Monophonics have staked out predominantly dreamy territory on the moody It’s Only Us and are intent on keeping the retro psychedelic soul flames burning.