Lettuce: "Elevate" Album Review - Chris J. Smith/Edited by Tim Lemon
Updated: Jun 28, 2019
The Lettuce Krewe is back with a brand new album! Produced by Russ Elevado (The Roots, D'Angelo, Erykah Badu) with a "funk first" mentality as drummer Adam Deitch puts it, the record is mostly a compilation of originals but also features a unique cover of Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" that really raises the bar. They have always put a unique, tasteful spin on splendid cover selections such as Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up", but even as those lyrics say, they aren't stopping to revel in the laurels of past albums such as Rage!.
With the permanent addition of popular guest vocalist and keyboardist Nigel Hall, replacing former member Neil Evans, as well as the departure of long-time guitarist, founding member, and “Soulive” bandmate of Neil, Eric Krasno, the band has transformed into an entirely different animal while keeping their strong roots of Berklee music education and, most importantly, their friendship, intact.
The first track off the album, “Trapezoid”, ventures deep into the previously unexplored intellectual Trap realm, setting the mood for a modern yet still uniquely fresh and innovative compilation. It’s densely rhythmic and seems like a wonderful fit for the group although I don’t normally listen to Trap.
The LP then digresses into “Royal Highness”, a classic and nearly vintage sounding track with thick, strongly present guitars and gut-busting beats by Adam. I was very impressed by Russ’s production style on this one, carving out the right space and dialing in each instrument’s optimal frequency, thus allowing everything to shine brilliantly while remaining incredibly cohesive and robust. To me, this tune is a bit reminiscent of the second track off Lettuce’s album Crush , titled “Get Greasy”, as it is definitely an up-tempo number sure to get listeners on their feet
The third track (and also the single of the album), “Krewe”, certainly has a unique flavor, almost as if straight out of Nassau in the Bahamas. Itsbanging percussion and sweet horns carry the tune in a joyously funky fashion. Ryan Zoidis absolutely dominates the modal and patient solo and I really love Benny Bloom’s harmony accompaniments and voicings as well. On the production side, the tasteful pinch of reverb emulsifies the horns so smoothly that the untrained ear might think it’s one horn player. I do not know the depth to which the funk greats Tower of Power influenced Russ and the horn squad in terms of production and live sound reinforcement methods, but I would not be at all surprised if little compression was used in favor of showcasing the band’s seamless chemistry that has developed over years of incredible discipline. The tight arrangements move the song along, nearly creating the presence of a vocalist to satisfy the demands of the average listener. In my humble opinion, I think “Krewe” was a solid choice for the album’s single.
Following “Krewe” is a terrifically eerie song titled “Shmink Dabbie” which, judging from a past composition (“The Flu” off the band’s first record Outta Here), seems as though it was primarily written by guitar player Adam “Shmeans” Smirnoff. Another clue that leads me to that assumption is the long awaited, ferocious harmonic minor guitar solo that shines over the gradually building Spanish groove with which the band cements the track to lay the foundation for such a delicious solo. Even before the solo enters with a very human, imperfectly beautiful run up the neck, the hard, pulsing rhythmic hits captured my attention. The song then proceeds into its articulate crescendo, engulfing this Santana-laced creation like a massive cloud of Erick “Jesus” Coombs’ cannabis smoke.
The creative cover of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears for Fears dates back to the early days of Nigel and Kraz’s musical kindling. I feel the song itself is a pop radio icon soaked in nostalgia, making it a great choice to reel in new listeners. The feel-good attitude of the original is retained and even elongated in their cover by its pronounced accents and drawn out measures over the persistent, plucked guitar melody and an infusion of blissfully hypnotic effects and instrumentation in the bridge. It all comes to fruition with a huge, anthemic vocal outro by Nigel, exclaiming the cleverly displaced yet truly resonant lyrics, “There's a room where the light won't find you, holding hands while the walls come tumbling down, when they do, I'll be right behind you.” I have yet to see them play this one live, but I feel like the raw, powerhouse soul of it would be something at which to marvel and I really look forward to catching it live soon!
Branching further into jam band-esque musical territory, the 13+ minute funk odyssey “Gang Ten” explores a wide range of melodies, rhythms and more creative use of effects, especially Zoidis’s sax synth. Genuinely awestruck, my words were somewhat limited on this one. I felt a slight reminiscence to “Trilogy” off Crush, but whereas “Trilogy” was more like 3 songs in one and half as long, “Gang Ten” seemed to elaborate on this “set” style presentation of music. Weaving in and out of different sections with intense efficiency, it occupies the audience’s attention span for a longer window. It’s hard to imagine tackling a bear like this in the studio, but then I remember these guys are seasoned vets with huge ears, attention to detail, and an ability to articulate musical phrasing that is second to none, except maybe James Brown himself.
On a “godfather of soul” note, Nigel embodies the man well in the explosive and richly soulful “Ready to Live”, backed by a drum-track that delightfully reeks of Garibaldi’s “Soul Vaccination”.Guest performer Marcus King then slays guitar to match his vocal ferocity in “Love Is Too Strong”, taking it to the streets with a deep, bluesy mojo. Between those two tracks hides what I feel to be the gem of the album (with an actual hidden gem jam-out tucked in at the tail end) and my personal favorite track “Larimar”. This track sounds like it belongs on television special “Shaft”. Seriously, listen to that subtle delay automation and washy keyboard! It is a brilliant tune with tons of spunk and energy.
Next is “Purple Cabbage”, a tune I heard on some of the band’s early video promos leading up to the release of the record. Most likely referring to some vicious Colorado stank, this bouncy, hip hop number is a fantastic masterpiece that really hooks you from the get-go. The puncturing horn lines and glitch of the drums really take the cake for me on this one. Similar to that of “The Crusher” off Fly, Deitch’s beats really don’t quit and he always seems to amaze me with his comfort level in laying down the shiftiest and most swag-laden grooves while the band remains locked hard into a grid, especially with those shady horns! This track clocks in at just over 9 minutes, giving some of those old-school fusion songs from the 80’s a run for their money.
The dub counterpart “Trapezoid Dub” appropriately closes the album, coming full circle and really expressing the band’s charismatic vibe and interaction well.
All in all, the record was a highly enjoyable listen and I am so glad my favorite band continues to crank fun and heartwarming music out into the world. I feel like I've learned and grown through these guys over the years and, as a multi-instrumentalist, can identify with a bit of each of their colorful personalities. Their vibrant sets always leave my soul feeling refreshed. Lettuce is definitely a band worth checking out when they come to your town! Please check out www.lettucefunk.com for tour dates and lots of dope content. Thanks and peace y'all.