Album Review: BROTHERS GROOVE – Play The Game

Shabby Toad Records – [Release Date: January 2014]

The Brothers Groove comprises a trio of funk loving, soulful blues veterans from Birmingham, who together with producer /drummer Wayne Proctor live up to their name on an album full of good taste, feel and cool jammed out moments. But while ‘Play the Game’ is an enjoyable ride, it ultimately cries out for a tad more sweat, passion and dirt in the grooves.

It’s an album steeped in the funky antecedents of bands like Stuff, The Crusaders and Robben Ford, all glued together by the band’s intuitive jamming style. It sounds as if it has been painstaking put together as an after hours affair, big on shifting moods, feel and tones. As a result it percolates, bubbles up and charms, but never actually catch fire, as it’s a slow burning album that demands several listens before you really get inside the grooves and latch on to the subtle solos.

In Shaun Hill, the band have a guitar playing vocalist who is well suited to the material, though perhaps his voice isn’t memorable enough make it special and his range seems to pre-empt the scope of much of the material.  Indeed on the funky opening title track, he’s reminiscent of Henrik Freischlader’s warm vocal style, but without the significant counterbalancing emphasis on Nigel Mellor and his own guitar work.

And that touches on my main reservation about what is otherwise a very fine album. It’s one thing to make a musical statement about less being more – with the result that you build your songs from the ground up – but it’s quite another to try and keep a listener’s interest with a succession of mid-tempo pieces that don’t solely rely on the intensity of the solos. You really have to do a little more in terms of tension building to bring out the intricate dynamics of the grooves.

It would be uncharitable to say that this is a funky album dogged by typical Anglo reserve, but in truth the band treads a thin dividing line between mellow grooves and catalytic spark. So while the tightly wrapped funk of the title track sets the standard, and ‘Duty Calls’ is a burgeoning shuffle built on the back of Deano’s rippling bass and topped by the kind of fine wah-wah solo that is revisited on ‘Easy Found Love’ , there’s not enough of the band’s own DNA to make the album stand out.

‘Easy Found Love’ also benefits from another wah-wah break and is built on a hypnotic groove that ultimately flatters to deceive, as it doesn’t really go anywhere in spite of some added percussion.

‘Never Gonna Happen’ similarly relies on clever little production techniques such as gradually bringing the vocal from the back to the front of the mix, to give the track an extra dynamic. Perhaps ‘My Guitar’ is the closest they get to nailing a crossover sound that has potential radio appeal, while the atmospheric ‘Treat ‘Em Mean’ smoulders with intent and is one of the best produced tracks on the album.

They positively lean into the slow blues of ‘Another Girl’, as Hill adds delicate notes on a song that actually demands the kind of space, time and reverence that they dish out too liberally elsewhere. The suspended mid-section with its gentle repeated chord voicing is a master stoke, as they immerse themselves in a drifting blues and build it up with a ringing tone and intuitive rhythmic accompaniment.

They cleverly juxtapose that deep blues with a very familiar sounding riff of ‘What’s The Deal?’, as crisp toned solos snake their way in-between funky rhythms, but they never quite shake off the languor that some people might charitably interpret as sticking to the grooves.

Shaun finally steps out of his comfort zone on the shimmering ‘Will I See You There?’, with an uplifting phrase to close an enjoyable, cool and even sophisticated album. ‘Play The Game’ never quite sparks enough to make it essential, but you can’t argue with the standard of musicianship that in itself deserves four stars.  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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