Any conversation about the brilliance of Motown that doesn’t eventually touch on the Funk Brothers and subsequently guitarist Dennis Coffey is a flawed one. A survivor of the Tamla snake pit, Coffey was key in helping to introduce a grittier texture to the label’s sound, with his legendary wah-wah guitar gracing tracks such as the Temptations’ classic “Ball of Confusion” and the Undisputed Truth’s monumental “Smiling Faces,” among others. His solo career in the 1970s is a breakbeat goldmine and produced one bona fide smash in the instrumental “Scorpio.”
Though the past looms large on Coffey’s 2011 self-titled release, the album never feels stubbornly retro or pandering. Assembling an impressive list of guests that understand his legacy (Paolo Nutini, Mayer Hawthorne, and the Dirtbombs’ Mick Collins among them), Coffey sounds downright vital, unleashing dusted licks and stinging wah-wah over boom-bap breaks and buoyant horns. Kicking things off with “7th Galaxy,” a dose of cosmic funk beamed from an otherworldly Detroit, the album sticks to the kind of heavy, urgent grooves that marked the classic productions of Norman Whitfield and George Clinton. The seventy-year-old Coffey will likely never again be “the sound of young America,” but when you hear him getting low with Collins and Rachel Nagy of the Detroit Cobras on “I Bet You,” you can almost believe he has enough energy left to jump start Chrysler all by himself.