Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The Stepkids

The Stepkids - The Stepkids
released 26 September 2011 on Stones Throw

So much music has been made over the past half-century or so that it’s impossible to create anything that is truly new in every sense. But at what point does an artist go from being “heavily influenced” by certain bands or movements and become just a glorified covers act? Originality and authenticity are grossly over-valued qualities in pop, but in recent years, both Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and Eli “Paperboy” Reed have risen to prominence closely aping their favoured musical styles. This doesn’t make their albums any less enjoyable, but it’s hard not to suspect that their legacy won’t be a far-reaching one.

The Stepkids are a trio of Connecticut session musicians whose debut record is so indebted to the sound of '70s psych and West Coast harmonies it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn they’d been beamed here in a time machine from that very decade. Its rich seam of influences makes ‘The Stepkids’ intermittently sublime listening, but it can also be a frustrating experience.

After a haunting, chanted intro, the album explodes in a riot of funk bassline, wah-wah guitar and falsetto vocals called 'Brain Ninja'. The kaleidoscopic spectrum of sound recalls Sly Stone and Jimi Hendrix, and the whole track has a fuggy, hallucinogenic feel to it (potential baseless claim alert: illegal substances may well have been imbibed during the creation of this record). The main reference point, however, is New York sunshine pop group, The Free Design. In fact,The Stepkids sounds as if it could be a great “lost” Free Design album from the mid-70s.

Tracks alternate between loose, free and lazy, and uptempo, swaggering funk. 'Suburban Dream' buries its shimmering keys and organ stabs beneath swathes of reverb to an extent you can almost hear the velvet jackets and wide lapels. 'Shadows On Behalf' is comfortably the album highlight, making use of the focus other hazier tracks lack with soaring flute, gorgeous backing vocals and an addictive chorus. It’s also probably the first track in around 35 years to mention people dancing “to the boogaloo.”

Sadly, The Stepkids meanders a little too often, meaning it can often feel longer than it actually is. Nowhere is this better encapsulated than in 'La La' which – despite possessing a chorus whose melody could melt the stoniest of hearts – manages to sound messy, unfinished and in desperate need of a proper climax. Other songs suffer the same fate – 'Wonder Fox' drips with effortless cool, yet still somehow sounds oddly non-descript, while shades of classic Motown can’t save 'Legend In My Own Mind' from being altogether dull.

Ultimately, The Stepkids’ blatant pilfering wouldn’t be so jarring if they’d done something more worthwhile with their ill-gotten gains. As it is though, the listener leaves this record wanting to crate dig in a second-hand shop, hoping to find examples of this kind of thing being done a whole lot better. The Stepkids isn’t a particularly bad record, but why eat at McDonald’s when there’s fillet steak available?

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