Recall way back at the close of this century’s first decade how there seemed to be an indefatigable trend of neo-soul reproductions hailing mostly from the career-musician detritus of Brooklyn? Their identity was so Brooklyn that it was snapped up by Jay-Z for an explosive turn. So Brooklyn that their ranks faithfully replicated the soulful fabric of that previous borough favorite, the Wu-Tang Clan. But the sound’s nostalgia, which has always been, incidentally, an homage to the dirty-deep funk of house bands hailing from markedly un-Brooklyn places such as Memphis or Detroit or, uh, Nigeria, is now its own nostalgia. We’ve entered a strange time, friends, when hearing something that’s supposed to sound like 1965 in 2012 just reminds us of 2007.
Menahan Street Band, the instrumental supergroup of New York–based funk players who each sit on the roster of separate well-known neo-soul and afrobeat acts—predominately the Dap-Kings, El Michels Affair, and Antibalas—reunite on The Crossing, a crisp, faultless follow-up to 2007’s Make the Road By Walking. That was the title track that blew up under Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…),” a single from an album that was actually a fake soundtrack to a movie that took place mostly in the 1970s. So Menahan’s meticulous recapitulation-groove was a perfect fit. The very creation of the American Gangster concept album, for Jay-Z, was like penning a bizarro memoir as he saw himself shirking his imaginary public retirement. Eras were simultaneously ending and beginning and it seemed there was no better language for describing what was happening than the music of the past. Now, though, it’s the future.
While there’s no outright showstopper like “Make the Road By Walking,” The Crossing manages to phrasally reference the lightning-strike horn crescendoes that gave that single its timeless resonance. Especially the titular opener, with its noteworthy length and evolving sonic textures, almost serves as a coda to the energy of the previous album. It feels like a lament. Almost every other track, however, is more or less terrifying. The overbearing, breathless anxiety of a Bond score trills throughout “Lights Out.” “Slight of Hand” tinkles with unnatural guitar-string plinks and shrieking horns in such disarming bravado it would fit seamlessly over the Saul Bass opening credits of Otto Preminger’s classic, The Man with The Golden Arm. But then there are other kinds of soundtracks—“Seven Is The Wind” howls with a desolate breeze and haunting feedback-heavy Dobro riffs—we might as well be walking through the endless solitude of a dusty Western.
Based on the music of Menahan Street Band, which has always styled itself as the sort of house band for an entire community, the sound of the times is so much grizzlier than it used to be. Lest we forget 2007 was also a time of boundless hope compared to the broke disillusionment we’re kicking around in now. What was once slicked-up cool, the heartbeat of an exciting time, is now drowsy and solemn, and when it’s not, it’s palpably anxious. There is so much more darkness on this record than the previous one. The only glimmer of optimism shines on the gorgeous “Driftwood,” a brief epic of rumbling Hammonds and buzzed-out guitars that blazes like a sunset. Except it’s only the penultimate track. “Ivory and Blue” closes the album tremulously and inconclusively—just over a minute long, it gives no final word, just a tension that thrums until it fizzles.