Before I begin, I must disclose that Snarky Puppy are my all time favourite musical ensemble, and I can guarantee bias on so many levels.
That being said, quite honestly, if you love Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Frank Sinatra, Adele, Martin Garrix, Beyoncé, literally anyone, you must check out Snarky Puppy. I promise there will be an absolute bare minimum of one song on each of their albums that you will fall in love with, for some reason or another. Whether it be the funky grooves, the juicy keyboard lines, the diverse cultural embracement or even the vocalists from the Family Dinner album series, there is something inextricably likeable about Snarky Puppy.
Snarky Puppy, who refer to themselves collectively as “The Fam”, are a multi-instrumentalist, jazz fusion group from the US, that started off as a humble gospel church residency and now tour internationally to sold out crowds. Led by bassist Michael League, their cross-cultural compositions and entertaining performance value has attracted fantastic acclaim, and their collaborative albums have secured the ensemble two Grammys.
Snarky Puppy has already supplied one ripper album this year, Family Dinner Vol. 2, a sequel to their Grammy winning album from 2013. Despite a busy tour schedule and plenty of side projects, the band delivered their 11th album Culcha Vulcha in late April, which sees the band return to pure studio album recording for the first time in eight years.
The band teased its eager fans with the only single of the album, “Tarova”, and whilst short, the track demonstrates a more formalised but extremely exciting tune. Compact and groove driven, the track showcases the impeccable virtuosic organ playing of Cory Henry, as well as Michael League’s fantastic writing. Although it may be Snarky Puppy’s shortest ever track, it is perhaps one of their most accessible to new listeners. Feel free to check out this peculiar review of the single below.
Diving into the remainder of the album, “Semente” is a fantastic tune, drawing heavily on Latin influences, with the polyrhythmic percussion and South-American flute performance. With great solos and a Michael League favourite outro, “Semente” is certainly another Snarky Puppy hit, but doesn’t really draw greatly from what the band has done previously. Similar can be said for “Palermo”, which is certainly great fun and exciting with its marimba and lower piano riff, yet the track lacks vibrancy.
Fusing funk, New Orleans jazz and new-age big band, “Grown Folks” has drawn from the band’s sounds and explored them in a very different climate. From muted to open horns, or the conversational use of percussion, all over fly bass riffs and guitar licks, I personally saw this as a sequel to the band’s earlier track “Young Stuff”, trying to demonstrate how far the band has come in such a short time. Even the unison horn lines sound tighter than ever before, suggesting the band is progressing extremely well and are yet to peak (or so I hope…).
“Gø” is another really fun track with its underlying bass line, colourful horn tunes, sweeping string flourishes and organ highlights. I must admit the warbled trumpet solo did sound very familiar and after some searching, I think we have a case of recycled material from “The Clearing” off Sylva. But who am I to complain? The solo is different to just another virtuosic trumpet solo, and provides a dark colour as the piece leads into its second half. Another top tune, but still lacks the bright fire of the band’s earlier albums.
Whilst I’d love if Snarky Puppy delivered an album of amazing tracks from top to bottom, I’m afraid some of these tracks haven’t really hit the mark for me. “Beep Box” and “Gemini”, while sophisticated, lack the raw exhilaration factor of the killer tracks of Culcha Vulcha and prior albums. Neither do they have the gorgeous delicacy that the more sensitive Snarky Puppy tracks possess, like “Kite” or “Sintra”. Rather, these tracks feel excessively edited in the studio, and don’t feel like the Snarky Puppy I have grown to love.
However, Snarky Puppy has saved the best for last, with “Big Ugly” and bonus track “Jefe”. Whilst the former opens with what sounds like a seductive opening to an early ‘00s pop ballad, it is really unravelling a mega masterpiece, exploring all the various colours from the score in one huge track. Sitting at just over nine minutes, Snarky Puppy polyphonically provides heaps of material for the first half of the work in horns, guitar, bass and drums, building up to a big guitar solo (which I personally find screechy and unpleasant but certainly adds individualised colour). However, League has meticulously constructed a magnificent build up into a mega synth solo, that simply must be listened to. Using such simple material, League creates a glorious ‘80s anthem conclusion to the track for Shaun Martin to solo over till the cows come home. So strikingly different to what they’ve done before, I’m very impressed with “Big Ugly” and consider it the highlight of the album.
Jared loves to share his passion for music and artists through music reviews and commentaries. These include a selection of reviews written for community radio stations 3MBS and Radio Monash.