Friends of Gravity: Thankful
The Louisiana groove trio known as Friends of Gravity aims its sound directly at Jamband Nation on its debut CD, Thankful. The groupconsisting of Andy Bourgeois on a multitude of keyboards (and on the leadoff track "Horeshackin', tenor sax), Tommy Sciple on electric six-string bass and acoustic bass, and Simon Lott on drumsis fascinated with sonic texture and the almighty groove, and Thankful provides plenty of both. Bourgeois layers B-3, Fender Rhodes, various synths, and my favorite organ, Wurlitzer, over Sciple's meaty six-string and Lott's snare-popping funk drumming (no chance for the listener to get lost here: Lott's playing firmly on the two and the four at all times). There's no doubt that this band can move a crowd; they could probably get a Bonnaroo audience dancing at seven in the morning. In the rain.
There is, however, some question as to originality. The group's website cites a host of influencesthe Meters, Herbie Hancock, even Radioheadbut conspiciously absent are Medeski Martin & Wood, whose style looms godlike over most of the songs here. The B-3 textures and busy, dry drum sound of "Algiers give the game away completely: it sounds like an MMW outtake. Actually, so does much of the CD; it's often merely a question of whether, like "Algiers, the piece is reminiscent of older, more purely funky MMW, or instead sounds like the more experimental, peculiar moments of the band's work (like "Triple Threat," which features a distorted Fender Rhodes tone that positively screams John Medeski). The music's often good; the layered keyboard and sampled soundscape textures sound marvelous, especially on headphones, but the problem with sounding very much like another group is that the original group always wins the war of comparison. There's nothing on Thankful as good as, say, any tune on End of the World Party (Just in Case).
That said, there are some fine moments. "Triple Threat is a smoky, dub-inflected number that slowly (plenty of time here: six of the album's eight songs, including this one, are at least nine minutes long) morphs and builds into a burbling, steaming musical gumbo with a wah-wah'd keyboard solo that mimics electric guitar. "D-Sciple features the bassist's lead six-string over a benign sonic landscape of, at various moments, Bourgeois' melodica and Lott's sampled hip-hop breakbeats. The final track, "Joy, is the best, though: a studio concoction of keyboards, droning loops, vocal samples, fierce drumming and what sounds like a live flute: this is the group at its most experimentaland most originalfreed from the relatively limiting constraints of groove.
And then there are weaker moments. Bourgeois plays lots of tenor on "Horeshackin', and here the music turns into cloying, bland funk-jazz at its worst: it's reminiscent of Karl Denson, but Denson at his most commercially motivated is better than this. The comparably housebroken saxophone of guest Scott Bourgeois likewise undermines "Stark, but fortunately fellow guest Rex Richardson's electronically effected trumpet licks give it a restorative spookiness that suggests Nicholas Payton's Sonic Trance. "Church is an all-acoustic number with a Spanish flavor that sounds improvised despite the logic and structure of Bourgeois' piano playing; it suggests, unfortunately, that while the group began as an acoustic trio, it would be ill-advised to return to its roots. This is a band that errs toward overplaying.
Thankful is a flawed album by a band that lacks a distinctive identity of its own. It should be pointed out that the group's fans couldn't care less; they're too busy going to see Friends of Gravity liveand dancing for the entire set.
Personnel: Andy Bourgeois: keys, organs, samples, saxophone, melodica; Tommy Sciple: basses, soundscapes; Simon Lott: drums, cymbals, sampler; Rex Richardson: trumpet (#2); Scott Bourgeois: saxophone (#2,5)
Track Listing: 1. Horeshackin' 2. Stark 3. Triple Threat 4. Church 5. D-Sciple 6. Drift 7. Algiers 8. Joy