Somewhere deep within the profundities of musical obscurity lies a band so influential, their sound has been heard by millions. This band is Menahan Street Band, and you’ve likely never heard of them, but you’ve definitely heard them. Maybe you’re familiar with the band as a sample in countless hip-hop songs from Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys” to Kendrick Lamar’s “Faith” or Kid Cudi’s “Solo Dolo.” You may have seen members of the band with Freddie Gibbs, the Black Keys and The Roots. They’re also stapled collaborators with soul legends Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones.
The Exciting Sounds of Menahan Street Band is the group’s third full-length album and their first release in almost ten years. This album is also the first that the group has put out since the passing of both Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones. Through Bradley and Jones, Menahan Street Band revitalized and modernized classic soul and helped create superstars out of their frontmen.
The Exciting Sounds serves, in large part, as a tribute to Charles Bradley. The album was built from the ashes of the recording sessions between the band and Bradley, and the final song in the album, “There Was a Man,” acts as a sendoff to their friend. In doing so, Menahan Street Band remains largely loyal to its roots. A unique funk-pop-soul sound, luscious instrumentation and bold experimentation while maintaining a retro feel have all become signatures of the band’s style and are very prominent in The Exciting Sounds.
The loss of Bradley is felt through more than just the content of the record. While the production of the album is quite rich, it feels empty overall. Many of the songs on the record have an almost fragmentary quality to them as if they were recorded and mixed with a vocalist and had the vocal track removed right before the album got shipped out. The absence of any meaningful vocals or hooks to latch onto allows the album to easily slide into the background, almost as if it were an ambient record. At its best, The Exciting Sounds excels at creating a vibe: Its masterful low-key production allows the album to serve as a soundtrack to your life. At its worst, songs can seem dull and without meaningful substance.
In publicity for The Exciting Sounds, Menahan Street Band promoted the album as having “Morriconian grandeur.” While it may not quite live up to the caliber of Ennio Morricone’s timeless film scores, The Exciting Sounds has an undeniable cinematic quality to it. This goes beyond even the occasional orchestral swells or spaghetti-western-inspired guitar hooks. The songs seem purposefully written to serve as the score for some unmade film. Even the order of the tracks is laid out as if to fill the mold of an ’80s action caper. This may also explain the almost indefinable emptiness of The Exciting Sounds. Devoid of a film to accompany the album, the experience of listening feels very similar to listening to a movie soundtrack.
Another aspect of The Exciting Sounds, which becomes immediately apparent upon listening, is that it’s bursting with ideas. With an average song length of under three minutes, the album doesn’t have an ounce of fat on it — but maybe it’s too lean. Given the relatively short amount of time spent on each song and the sheer diversity of the album, listening to The Exciting Sounds feels like watching a tennis match. Your attention is constantly bouncing back and forth from one idea to the next. One minute you may be listening to a soulful ballad full of weepy trumpets and watery keys; the next, a shift to a rhythmically complex action-oriented funk piece. While this explosion of ideas may showcase the immense talent of Menahan Street Band and keep the album exciting, this formula runs into problems when songs feel incomplete.
One of the most interesting tracks on The Exciting Sounds, “Queens Highway,” is only a minute and seven seconds long. This gives the song just enough time to introduce itself and leave. This wouldn’t be so egregious if it didn’t happen so many times on the record. Somewhere during the production of The Exciting Sounds, Menahan Street Band could have benefited from an editor, someone to tell the band to leave the less interesting ideas on the cutting room floor and expand on the album’s better tracks.
The Menahan Street Band seems like an excellent experiment on paper. They’re an all-star cast of some of the most talented musicians working today, and their foothold in popular culture speaks volumes to the demand for their sound. However, Menahan Street Band has yet to prove that they can reach the same highs without someone or something to guide them.
The success of The Exciting Sounds may very well depend on whether the rest of the music community, be it hip-hop artists, soul singers or film producers, pick up on the sound and incorporate it into larger acts. Until then, The Exciting Sounds will live in incomplete music purgatory.
Daily Arts Writer Kai Bartol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.