Review: Instrumental Eclectic, Retro-Futuristic Groove Music? Bring It On.

(Peabody Records)
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

What to do as a working musician when your usually heavy touring schedule dries up to nothing due to a pandemic no one was prepared for? Reach out to others in your predicament, fire up the computer, and keep on creating.

That process is now known as “pandemic music,” and MEM_MODS has released its version of it.

The Memphis-based threesome of multi-instrumentalist friends, Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars), Paul Taylor (session dude and leader of New Memphis Colorways), and ringleader Steve Selvidge (member of The Hold Steady), pooled their talents by way of file trading, emerging with a dozen instrumentals. The ensuing music—dubbed “retro-futuristic eclectic grooving trio” in its press release—feels like the soundtrack to a cool spy thriller from a few decades back.  

Elements of funk, space rock, soul, orchestral, and jazz combine for a flavorful gumbo that might have resulted from serious jamming… if these guys had ever been in the same room. That it sounds like they were is a testament to how well this mishmash works. A horn section was brought in to add more heft.

From the galactic approach of the spacey “Perseveration Blues” with its lone guitar seemingly adrift in the atmosphere above earth anchored by synth percussion and floating horns, to the tough funk of the opening “Capricorn Catastrophe,” and the very Shaft-like groove of “Midtown Miscommunication,” these tunes shift moods like scenes from a ’70s blaxploitation movie, sometimes within the confines of a single track. Elements of The Meters and hometown icons Booker T. & the MG’s appear, and “Sparkle State” could almost be considered a throwback to disco, but nothing lasts long before twists change the music’s route.

Some selections like the funked-up “Cootie Party” don’t move the needle enough, feeling like pleasant filler searching for a route forward that never appears. Elsewhere the bubbling synths of the closing “Horn Lake Hookup” push the vibe into experimental jazz/funk waters seemingly inspired by Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, a trend also sampled throughout the album, which infuses animated creativity into this collection.

Like the unusual, but intriguing, titles such as “Feathers on a House Cat” and “Congressional Tadpole” indiscriminately applied to the tunes, you’re never quite sure what you’re getting until they are over, which is part of the pleasure. Considering the process of how these songs were cut and pasted together, the end product is surprisingly cohesive despite, or perhaps because of, how the direction alters somewhat randomly.

Will there be a Vol. 2? And if so, are the same players involved? There’s no indication of either, but like this, it’ll surely be worth exploring.

Photo courtesy Nick Loss Eaton Media

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