Rating – 4/5
1920’s big band jazz, 12 bar blues, Duke Ellington. A good base for a classic playlist. Throw in garage, grime and huge dance floor fillers, industrial synth and booming bass and you’ve potentially made a massive mess. Or have you?
City of Sin, the sophomore album from Dutty Moonshine Big Band is all that and a dash more, the blend of the lot being more than the sum of its parts.
There are many labels you could chuck its way and I guess Electro Swing sort of starts the job but it barely covers it.
There are 12 members of the band which is a lot but then big band is the name so it’s probably not a surprise. They’re telling a story about 1930’s bootleggers and if the story travels as far as the music does then you’d be willing to bet they got that stuff to the speakeasy before the feds caught them. The Beer Baron if you will be, of course, Dutty Moonshine, which is Michael Rack’s DJ persona, renowned for blending big beats and big band music, touring the world entertaining the masses. The big band features two MC’s Maria Laveau and Hyperman Sage.
Maria takes lead vocals on most tracks and is as compelling a narrator and raconteur as you’ll hear right now. She’s brutal and gritty one minute, then soul searching and emotive the next. Worth checking out these guys to hear her alone. Hyperman Stage takes a side role for the first half of the album which is a shame as he combines well with Maria on “The Arrest”, but he’s well worth the wait too. Luckily though the MC’s are only half the story.
The music itself is utterly fascinating. The tracks where the band feature more prominently as opposed to the big driving bass is where this collective shine the brightest, but the movement from upbeat jazzy brass to grimy industrial beats, blended with soaring vocals and gritty spat out rhymes really works. It’s something you won’t hear very often because it has to be a nightmare to get all that to blend and sound coherent but these guys absolutely succeed.
The album becomes better and better as you move through the tracks. It starts more paired back and holds key players in reserve if you will, letting the musical chops of the band slowly reveal itself as you listen.
The album opens with “Big Band Fam” a driving, hard, industrial, bass-filled dancefloor-filling club tune. It’s good but it really feels like a tiny glimpse of what the band is about. Genuinely. It’s pretty one dimensional and you might think you’ve picked up the wrong album when you’re expecting 1920’s jazz fused into it. Be patient, it’s coming.
“Click Clack Boom” brings more of the grime feel from “Big Band Fam” but with a mixture of more classic trance type synths. These guys do everything and then some when it kicks into a dirty garage infused section, interspersed with the chilled synths and soaring vocals.
Even at this paired back level, these guys have some serious chops.
“City of Sin” feels like you’re slap bang in the middle of an episode of Top Boy and the MCs intersperse their bars with more high-class jazz-style vocals. Grime featuring Ella Fitzgerald style vocals? You might never have thought you’d want that but you do. You very much do.
This track feels like the door is being pushed open a bit further into what these guys can do and without wanting to skip anything there’s an excitement to hear the next track because honestly, it’s hard to know what they’re going to come up with next. “Outlaws” starts off like Too Many Zoos, blended with 8-bit midi vibes and then alternates that with more rap vocals from the MCs. It’s great. Every track sounds like it’s getting a bit more adventurous than the last and gives the whole album a sense of direction and purpose.
“Fever” opens with Spanish guitar and then a full-on story in a Mike Skinner style. If Mike came from Valencia and or New Orleans. It’s as if the band picks out three styles of music they have to stick to and then just write. It’s incredible, refreshing and utterly compelling stuff.
“Tommy and Loretta” opens like a door right into a jazz club. You can see Duke on the piano and Louis in the wings until the story starts and it’s urban tinged storytelling moving the narrative with a slow melodic bluesy brass section. It’s all LA Confidential and a tale of a romance that more than keeps the interest as it moves you along.
“Fall from Grace” brings the beats back after two quieter numbers and the saxophone rips into it is the link between the harder industrial sound and the airy 2000s dance vocals. It’s a great blend of everything these guys have got, almost like the genres are having a dialogue throughout the track, pulling the music from one side to the other.
“The Arrest” is the best of the MC driven tracks as already mentioned but it’s interspersed with, as ever, the musical stylings of a funkier, upbeat band vibe. “It’s Alright” mashes the styles together into one. It doesn’t give each element its own defined section which is the approach before, it overlays them this time, then goes full lounge act in the middle before dipping back out to the blended nuances again. It’s an absolute ride of a track, fast-paced, then slow then speeding up again. Obviously the jazz is slower then the garage infused vibes are quicker by nature but it gives this song a great texture. “Fiança” features guest Portuguese vocalist Chininha and somehow manages to be different again. It’s jazzy flamenco with a snappy vocal and more garage-esque notes. Basically like the rest of the album in its eclectic nature but with a Portuguese flavor. Nando’s background music it is not. Dutty Moonshine Big Band bow out with locked up. A dressed-down number with all sorts of influences. Its constant bass line mixes with what can only be described at a South American feel and ends with what sounds like a phone conversation arranging a drug deal.
If your mind isn’t blown by all this then you are made of stronger stuff than most, or you’re very familiar with the guys already. It’s possibly the most innovative album out there and whilst it’s at it’s best when all the elements combine it could possibly become a bit of an overload if that was the approach all the time. There’s plenty of balance throughout with each facet of the group getting its place to shine across the album, and often in individual tracks before it’s pulled back into something else. It could be described as the musical equivalent of the waltzers. Pulling the sound from one element to the next and sometimes just spinning in place and pulling all the sections in on itself.
Groundbreaking, fun and very well done. Check out the album in May and the Tour resumes (Covid 19 permitting) in September. Just listen to these guys in some way shape or form. You won’t regret it.
Review by James Clinch