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Music Review: Incognito – Tales from the Beach

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On “I Come Alive (Rimshots and Basses),” a track off Incognito’s latest CD, Tales from the Beach, lead singer Joy Rose sings, “I come alive, when the backbeat starts to hit me / Takes me home and feeds my soul.” These lyrics not only define music as inspiration, but also summarize the Incognito sound.

Listening to their albums is like comfort food, an experience that relaxes you through its consistency and gentle grooves. Longtime fans know exactly what to expect when picking up a new Incognito album, and that’s not a bad thing; the band excels at its particular sound, a unique fusion of funk and jazz. Although Tales from the Beach marks their debut on new label Heads Up, longtime fans can be reassured the move has not altered their musical style.

Incognito’s particular style, however, is difficult to classify. Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick (along with co-founding member Paul “Tubbs” Williams) formed the band in the early 70s, eventually releasing their landmark work, Jazz Funk, in 1981. Melding world music with funky bass patterns and complicated chord changes, this work foreshadowed the U.K.’s burgeoning “acid jazz” movement, which reached its peak in the 90s (its best-known practitioners in the U.S. being Jamiroquai and the Brand New Heavies).

Williams subsequently left the group, so Incognito transformed into a music project helmed by Maunick and featured a rotating group of musicians and vocalists. Retuning after a ten-year absence with 1991’s Inside Life, Incognito released a steady stream of albums in the 90s and the early 00s. After scoring a minor hit on U.S. contemporary R&B radio with “Deep Waters” in 1994, the group gained a devoted following in America as well as throughout the world, continuing to perfect their version of acid jazz.

Incognito’s Bluey MaunickIncognito’s lyrics typically describe both heartache and optimism, and their latest album has both types in abundance. “I Remember a Time” laments a past romance, while “N.O.T.” chronicles the end of a relationship.

These expressions of sadness are balanced by uplifting numbers such as “Love, Joy, Understanding” and “Freedom to Love,” with lines such as “You can do it if you wanna / Make it happen if you try.” “Happy People” reads like an Oprah episode, with lyrics about controlling one’s life: “In your hands you hold your destiny / Take your troubles make them disappear.”

As usual, Maunick has recruited top musicians and singers to participate in the latest Incognito incarnation. Intermittent Incognito member, Joy Rose, as well as Maysa Leak, Imani, and Tony Momrelle provide funky vocals that nicely complement the driving beats and bass lines. Having recorded the album in England, Italy, Germany, and Indonesia, Incognito continues its tradition of incorporating world beats into its sound.

The album’s title track sounds like a slice of Afro-pop, while “Happy People” holds a hint of Latin rhythm. They do not neglect their R&B roots, however. Maunick has long admired R&B acts such as Earth, Wind, and Fire, Kool and the Gang, Tower of Power, and the Average White Band. Echoes of their music lace songs like “When the Sun Comes Down” and the horn section of “Feel the Pressure.”

Overall, Tales from the Beach fits quite well within the Incognito catalog. Longtime fans will enjoy their familiar sound, while new listeners will enjoy their cool, laid-back beats. The band has never departed from their signature sound, and in this case, this familiarity is quite welcome.

Tales from the Beach is scheduled to be released on June 24, 2008.

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