Whether it was brought to you by Motown, Stax, or other smaller labels, the soul music of the sixties and the seventies felt good. Revisiting those feelings and reworking them for the modern era can be an absolute pleasure, which is evident from the stunning work of The Commotions, who don’t just ask for your attention when they walk onstage; they demand it. This Ottawa-based 11-piece soul/R&B/funk act has tapped Canada’s top musicians for an uninhibited channeling of that Motown sound; their new album Volume II, is fronted by established vocalists Rebecca Noelle and Jeff Rogers, who are joined by an unusually talented team of songwriters and horn players. Ain’t no mountain high enough, and ain’t nothing wrong with that!
The Commotions do an incredible job of paying homage to the sounds of sweet soul. It can sometimes be unfair to point to similarities between bands within a review, as it can downplay the subject’s desire to do their own thing; The Commotions, however, explicitly distill a broad set of influences and shout them from the mountaintops. Some of the most enjoyably danceable feel-good music this side of 1968 comes together from heavy doses of Stax, Motown, James Brown, Curtis Mayfield, Blood, Sweat and Tears (the Al Kooper iteration), the Isley Brothers, and Gil Scott Heron. There’s even a taste of the arrangements of Frank Zappa, which you can directly feel in the breakdown of “Bad Girl”, a song that also has a James Brown feel, touched as it is by the pop and snap of snare drums and horns at all the right moments.
It’s all here, and you can shake your hiney to it in whichever direction you choose. Most of the tunes are uptempo reflections on the themes of romance, broken relationships, faraway desire, self-doubt and of course, the naked deliciousness of purposely choosing someone who is bad, bad, BAD for you.
Musical Director Brian Asselin spent time under the wings of the funk brothers, and his arrangements suggest an encyclopedic knowledge of soul, whether it’s gunshot accents, doo-wop vocal arrangements, or the subtle touches of keys and strings that create the perfect atmosphere. This includes the wonderful “Masquerade”, a slower-tempo tune that suggests that The Commotions are well familiar with Chicago as well as Blood, Sweat and Tears. The song drops a sax solo at the end that seals the deal for all the good feel. Similarly, “Right Kind of Wicked” nakedly cops from the Isley Brothers’ 70s output, but sets up its own flow that makes the tune all its own.
Particularly enjoyable are two tracks nearer to the end of the album, “Loving You” and “Come Clean”. The first is a ballad, perfectly complemented by a Fender Rhodes piano, plunking arpeggiated chords that provide a lovely backdrop for the lyrics, which detail the desire for an eternal love. It’s a perfect wedding song. “Come Clean” instead sees the band sneaking into the kitchen along with Emuir Deodato. The song’s hook is perfectly sly, a two-part ascending/descending harmony that suggests a bit of a Walk on the Wild Side. As an album closer, the song seals the deal.
This is one tight band. I imagine that their shows must be marathon performances in the vein of a way better dressed Mad Dogs and Englishmen, as there are horns, strings, and snare snap aplenty. The Commotions aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel, and that’s because they realize that the wheel rolls just perfectly the way it is.
Don’t miss The Commotions at 4:30pm on Sunday right before kick off at Lansdowne for the Grey Cup Festival! Tickets for their album release party at Babylon on Friday, December 1, are available on Eventbrite for only $10. For more information on the band and to stay in the know about upcoming shows, like them on Facebook and check out their website. Their music can be found online on iTunes, Soundcloud, or Bandcamp.