11 Track, LP (2012, Inertia)
That The Bamboos live experience is nigh on unbeatable is by this point beyond discussion. But the same probably can’t be said for the Melburnians’ albums. From Step It Up (2006) to Rawville (2007), Side-Stepper (2008) to 4 (2010), this exceptional funk/soul collective have tended to swing and miss, their musicality crammed into cuts heavy on groove but short on songwriting.
Now we have Medicine Man and it’s perhaps worth asking what’s changed since 2010. The answer, as it turns out, is plenty. For starters, bandleader and Bamboos songwriter Lance Ferguson added a solo album to his oeuvre. Last year’s Her 12 Faces – released under the LANU moniker – was hardly Australian Music Prize material, but it gave Ferguson, removed from band duties, an opportunity to concentrate on his writing in a sonic space far different to the clutter typical of The Bamboos’ output.
It’s hard not to think it’s had a direct impact on Medicine Man. This is a record of songs, rather than jams, with clear, dominant hooks and unhurried progressions. Helping are the treatments. Beyond Ferguson, the credits for the Daniel Merriweather-sung opener ‘Never’ stretch to just four other players, while ‘Where Does the Time Go’ rings a rosie around Aloe Blacc’s vocals via a simple mix of bass, keyboards, piano and glockenspiel. It’s lean, uncomplicated stuff, making Medicine Man a much nimbler and more accessible Bamboos record.
While Ferguson has stepped up in terms of songwriting, he’s also taken a step sideways with the production duties. John Castle, who Ferguson has described as being a “co-producer in the dark” on previous recordings, is given a proper credit on Medicine Man and it coincides with a major change in the Bamboos sound. Everything is crisper and more immediate, the mixes no longer sounding like they were recorded in a mess hall – although this was undoubtedly helped by some of the technical detailing. (Medicine Man is the first album where The Bamboos have broken away completely from running tracks to tape, Steve Smart at Studios 301 tasked with making everything sound as big as possible.)
Perhaps most importantly, however, Medicine Man differs from its predecessors in terms of Ferguson’s work with his collaborators. For starters, there are more of them: beyond Blacc and Merriweather, Ferguson has enlisted the winsome Ella Thompson and of course Tim Rogers, whose gutsy play at a falsetto dominates the album’s exceptional lead single, ‘I Got Burned’.
The regulars step up to the plate too. Megan Washington continues her growth as a vocalist by nailing a beautiful, horn-laced take on James Blake’s ‘The Wilhem Scream’, while Kylie Auldist – a powerful but often unmemorable singer – is crucial to making the Amy Winehouse tribute ‘Window’ arguably the pick of the entire LP.
Medicine Man is the way a Bamboos record should be, less soul and funk revue and more a cogent slice of artistry. Perhaps it’s all just a case of Ferguson finally bending to his will what must at times be an unruly nine-piece beast. He picks and chooses his weapons, and rarely is anything on this LP ever overcooked. It’s not perfect – Auldist’s second feature, ‘Cut Me Down’, is purely by-the-numbers and combines with the Bobby Flynn-sung ‘Midnight’ to saddle the record with a forgettable middle brace – but Medicine Man’s exceptional strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. This is the record The Bamboos have always threatened to make, and then some.
by Matt Shea