I picked up the Phenomenal Handclap Band's self-titled debut expecting them to be the second coming of ESG. I had heard "15 to 20" on KEXP's song of the day podcast, and I was won over by the jump rope rhymes, and the funky, organic hip-hop beat. This is one of the reasons why giving away singles for free is good business; there is no way I would I have listened to Phenomenal Handclap Band had I not heard them first, since they are from Brooklyn and have a goofy name. On the name alone, I'd have assumed they'd be yet another half-assed electro band, more versed in irony than in making compelling music.
They aren't this month's Black Kids, but neither are they the new wave of punk funk. The best way to describe the band would be to say that they sound like ESG mixed with Stereolab mixed with seventies Jesus freak jam rock. There are vintage synths, there are pulsing live drums playing disco beats, complete with popping hi-hats, and there are creepy praying hands on the album cover. Lady Tigra makes an appearance, as does Jaleel Bunton of TV on the Radio.
The band was started by two DJs, Daniel Collas and Sean Marquand, who got sick of playing other people's records, and decided to make some music of their own. Their background in dance music is obvious in the driving rhythms of the record. Even the slow songs are held together by beats. Drummer Patrick Wood plays the kinds of classic breaks that hip-hop DJs have been mining in dusty record stores since Kool Herc invented the merry-go-round technique, at a block party in the South Bronx on a hot summers night in the early seventies.
The Phenomenal Handclap Band's backing in DJing is precisely what is so exciting about them. Like the Dap Kings or the El Michels Affair, the Phenomenal Handclap Band uses live instruments to make music that looks back to the classic soul and funk that is the backbone of hip-hop and dance music. After a steady diet of computer-generated beats, the lush, organic sound of Phenomenal Handclap Band is like a breath of pure oxygen after years of L.A. smog.
Of course, the Phenomenal Handclap Band isn't just recreating seventies soul and funk. They go off in a trippier, more psychedelic direction. Aided by fellow seventies throwback Bart Davenport on the slow and druggy "The Circle Is Broken" and the AM pop of "All of the Above." "I Been Born Again" could be a Santana jam for a cult, and "The Martyr" is epic prog rock that sounds like Pink Floyd backed by the Steve Miller Band and Sly and the Family Stone."You'll Disappear" features ethereal vocals by Carol C over a funky beat reminiscent of Young MC's "Bust A Move" as performed by the Grateful Dead, complete with a guitar solo straight out of Daft Punk's "Aerodynamic." "Tears" is vintage Jefferson Airplane, with Tommy Brenneck doing a good imitation of Marty Balin, and Ellen McIlwaine as Grace Slick.
A bunch of hipsters playing funky acid rock whilst growing out their hair and pretending to be part of the me decade might not sound like a recipe for success, but the Phenomenal Handclap Band is a great album. The record sounds amazing, and most importantly, the band isn't being ironic. They are feeling what they are doing. No doubt they've spent too much time listening to old records, smoked too much pot, and dropped one too many tabs of blotter paper. The result is twelve songs of slightly acid-damaged funk rock that simultaneously sounds like a lot of bands you know and nothing you've ever heard before.