September 16, 2019
Released On June 25, 2013
Released By Hornblow & Palmetto Records
I’ve had a rough sort of outline in my head of what I wanted to say about Moon Hooch’s self-titled release since before I even picked it for this issue of Off Your Radar. I wanted to talk about my friend Chris, and how we became friends, and how I then became friends with his awesome wife, and how the two of them together (along with this album) helped get me through the complete clustercuss of a year that was my 2014. I wanted to talk about how Chris brought me this album at the exact right time, and we declared those months to be the Summer of Moon Hooch. About how every time I hear this album, the sheer exuberance of the saxophones requires me to drop what I’m doing and dance around. About how my then four-year-old daughter would shout “‘NUMBAH NINE,’ PLAY AGAIN! PLAY ‘NUMBAH FOUR!'” About how I adored these three young men that were almost young enough to be my sons for playing the music I didn’t even know I needed. About how I joked that I wanted to be their Band Mom to bake them vegan cookies and make sure they always had a safe place to stay while they were on tour. About how I’ve either pre-ordered or bought the day of release all of their other albums, which is something I so rarely do that it actually is worth mentioning. About how I’ve now turned so many other people into fans after Chris made one of me.
I still want to talk about all of these things in greater detail, and up until about two weeks ago, I still had every intention of doing so. But then I just kept staring at the cursor, willing the words to write themselves because I’m again not in a great place (for reasons unrelated to the previous Bad Place), and pretty much all I’ve been able to bring myself to do is binge watch Bake Off (as well as Supernatural so I can try to get caught up before the final season premieres).
I emailed Chris a few weeks ago, asking if he’d mind if I talked about him here, and haven’t even been able to reply to his “Of course! I’d be delighted. We’re friends, after all,” because I didn’t know how to say that it was such a wonderful and unexpected reply that it made me cry. I’ve been so caught up in the lies that my brain is feeding me that I had forgotten that I do have friends who care about me. This morning, I still hadn’t figured out how to make myself write about this album, so I put it on again. And I cried again. But this time I cried because for the first time in a while, things don’t seem like they’ll be terrible forever. As soon as the horns started, I started to dance. And I feel like maybe I can see a tiny spark of light at the end of this long, dark, tunnel. I needed that. So let’s go listen again, shall we?
50 Foot Pop Queenie
Brooklyn jazz trio breathing new life into the phrase “dance punk.”
I’d like to tell you about to experiences and the musical opinions which resulted from them. One of them, perhaps controversially, makes a judgement about art. I don’t think it should be controversial given that anytime we criticize a creative work, it’s inherently subjective, there I was bored to tears. As I sat in the darkened room, the only lights were blue floods searing my eyes from behind the members of a small jazz trio — the first jazz performance I could ever recall going to. Previous to that, my only exposure to jazz was occasionally hearing it as a radio dial rolled over CBC radio on a weekday afternoon. I watched for just under an hour as 3 university students noodled away on their instruments in a jumble of patterns and tempo experiments which seemed entirely disengaged from each other. They were certainly disengaged from the audience, rarely ever stopping or looking up to check to see if we were digging it. Most weren’t. It was pretentious, incoherent, and the sort of jazz that inspires parody of the genre. In short, it was a boring, incoherent mess.
I am a reasonable guy. I am not going to write off an entire genre on one bad experience with a university band of experimental musicians who possibly just met. So, the second experience was with a jazz trio from my hometown. A drummer who came from rock roots, a crooner on vocals, a stand-up bass, and one person overseeing several woodwind instruments. From the moment it began, it was a dynamic, flowing, and coherent parade of beats, melodies, and solos. Yes, there were impromptu meanderings into changing time signatures and shifting directions, but this is jazz after all and what made it work was that they pinned it down, brought it back home again. Their music soared because it had structure and even in its most unpredictable moments, you could at least predict that at some point there was a common foundation upon which every song was grounded. Maybe it was a certain drum pattern or a horn melody. It could be something as simple as the shaking of a maraca, but it provided a comfortable clock to which the listener could sync. It was the wall of the pool when the listener is nervous about swimming too far into the deep end.
Moon Hooch’s self-titled LP grants the listener this same familiar umbilical from the opening notes of “Number 9.” The ambient sounds suggest a busker blowing out a few lonely notes on a subway platform. Suddenly, he’s joined by a drummer who’s playing breaks more rooted in drum n bass or dance music. And if you think that might be their gimmick, it’s so much more than that. The album is merely drawing you in with a powerful but familiar house music groove. By the time you’ve made it “Number 7,” you’re already a seasoned jazz listener who’s appreciating a versatility you never realized saxophones possessed. The powerful high notes squeak out a level of passion that would have and probably should have caused my university experimental jazz band to hang up their instruments. Though I would never want to pigeon-hole it as a genre, I think at the very least jazz should be the painting on the wall which is a little abstract but still meaningful. And it certainly never hurts if it has a funky beat, and you can bug out to it.
Featuring an appearance by guest vocalist Alena Spanger.
This is another one of those bands where I was sold just from the details surrounding the music. The trio apparently cut this record in one 24-hour period and may of its songs are single takes. Given the material here, that’s impressive enough. And yet, there’s more: They apparently have played in the NYC subway and are now banned from doing so by the NYPD because of the commotion it causes / caused. But all of that aside, I was all-in as soon as I took a look at the track listing before pressing ‘play.’ Now, that’s my kind of absurdity. But let’s not forget why we’re talking about this record: the really, really, really fun music. It’s jazz instrumentation but without the jazz part. It’s danceable. It’s music for a party that isn’t of the pretentious or dinner varieties. Since they make electronic dance music with live instruments, I guess you might call it jazz-disco. Jazzco? Discazz? I dunno. The band calls what they do ‘cave music,’ which is as good a label as anything I can come up with. Actually, it’s probably better because, ya know, it’s them doing it. Moon Hooch has riffs (and drumming!) that would make both Metallica and The Strokes proud, so why not? There’s a gleefully silly exuberance that just makes this album such a joy to listen to. It’s like this music glows. It’s hard to sit still while listening to it. Still, I hesitate to suggest this stuff is as instantly-make-your-body-move-able as anything that Nile Rodgers wrote. Hmmm… you know what? I think I just did.
This is one of those peanut butter & jelly listens that Off Your Radar is great for. By “peanut butter & jelly,” I mean one of those unexpected juxtapositions that just works for some odd reason. In the case of Moon Hooch, they’ve found a way to reinterpret the charm of big band music, specifically the rhythmic capabilities of the saxophone, and crossed it with some of the rhythmic capabilities of contemporary music. And boy does it work! “Number 9” is the perfect energy to open any album, yet I love that they play with tempo on “Number 10,” gradually winding it down like record on a just-powered-down turntable. I could say the same for the aggression of “Number 8,” and “Low 4,” which I have to remember to never play in the car because I’ll quickly find myself going 120 miles an hour for no reason at all. But what’s most endearing about Moon Hooch is the interplay between EDM and Big Band music. I thought it was extremely cool and innovative to use the tenor sax in a staccato fashion that mimics the synth bass patches of popular EDM. Songs like “Tubes,” “Number 5,” and “Megatubes” flip the two seemingly disparate genres on their respective heads, and the result are tunes you’d expect to hear on TNT as the hype music for Thursday night hoops. This record is everything you want in a music recommendation: original ideas that put smiles on faces, and should put asses in the seats.
Taking busking to a new level, Moon Hooch challenges every semblance of what a band is and can be.
Given the atypical makeup of the band, it’s tempting to start any description of Moon Hooch with instrumentation. On paper, “a Brooklyn-based band comprised of two saxophonists and a drummer” reads like an experiment in intentional creative limitation. An intellectual exercise. Like someone asked “What would happen if we took the most fun part and made that the whole thing?” a la the old joke about making the whole airplane out of the black box. (Don’t forget that saxophone was the signature instrument of early rock and roll; the guitar won out, but we wouldn’t have rock as we know it if sax hadn’t paved the way.) It’s certainly rewarding from a theory perspective to track the intervals with which Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen incorporate harmony — like at the start of “Number 4,” or two minutes into “Low 2.” But the overall feeling of the music — visceral and propulsive — leaves the thinking aspect in the dust. This is pure, adrenaline-pumping fun. James Muschler’s drumming follows electronic dance music’s cycle of creation and destruction, with rhythmic crescendos that bubble over into frenzied passages that eventually dissipate, leaving room for the next buildup. Picture this: 9:30 a.m. Saturday morning. A travel mug of coffee. Driving west on I-64, in the direction of a gig that was scheduled to start before noon. No gig should start before noon. Yet I arrived at the load-in spot ready to (quite literally) rock and roll, thanks to 52 minutes of Moon Hooch. I know the band can get a club crowd moving at midnight; I first learned about them from an NYC-based friend who raved about their live show. But 9:30 in the morning… 80 mph down 64… too much coffee… that’s how I Moon Hooch. Apropos of nothing, here’s a video of Wenzl McGowen walking into a public library playing a sax amplified by a traffic cone.
The interesting thing about this record is that the same instrument can invoke so many different feelings and thoughts. I mean, that is true for almost every instrument, but usually when I hear a piano, I feel a little more melancholy, or when I hear an acoustic guitar, I get the sense or nostalgia. Usually any time I have listened to horns lately, it has been in sections of songs and it is slower, more romantic in a way. This album is great because it challenges that stigma for me. It made me realize that orchestras, even limited, nuanced ones like this, really hold so much range and depth. To really sit and listen to all the different components is so enchanting, being able to pick apart just how different the same instrument can sound from one song to the next. Overall, the sound is upbeat here, a great contrast for when the fall season comes around. Typically, I reserve this time for the dark and moody, slower paced music, but it’s nice to remind yourself that there is always happiness and hope in every season.
Jazz music for the acolytes of James Murphy and Luke Jenner, punk music for votaries of Béla Fleck and Victor Wooten, fusion for those who really don’t understand what fusion is, and plain fun for everyone in between, Moon Hooch’s self-titled debut is simply sensational. Boisterous. Playful. Challenging. It’s often hard to imagine music this great comes from just two saxophones and a drum kit, a fact that would make record execs and grade school band teachers faint simultaneously, but the free-wheelin’ spirit of the trio really makes the music jump far past its scant production. Really though, it’s not the line-up that gives pause – it’s the way the band approaches melody that is especially stunning, where the groove often serves as the hook or chorus with the sax parts swinging wildly around it, sometimes adding to the groove and other times just finding a way to weave in and out of each other without stepping on anyone’s toes. (Spoiler alert: they never do, despite some numbered tracks feeling like the bottom is going to drop out at any second.) Because of this, each song showcases the saxophonists’ ability to marry dissonant rhythms and tones over and over again, bringing some semblance of uniformity to measured disorder. But, in a true testament to the skill of the trio, this never feels like experimenting just for the hell of it — all of their modulating and wandering serves to bolster the frenetic groove the band is so adept at constructing, molding, and unleashing. Simply put, most listeners won’t know what the hell is going on in these songs except uncharted musical joy, the type you want to listen to over and over again if you could. And luckily you can, just as I am right now as I hit play again. Hopefully you’ll meet me in the chaos.