Nu Shooz - Bagtown (2016)

Nu Shooz
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Nu Shooz - BagTown

Although Portland-based Nu Shooz may eternally be associated with the dance-pop-driven sounds of the mid-1980s (thanks to their global club and radio smashes “I Can’t Wait” and “Point of No Return”), the band’s foundation lays quite firmly in funk and soul, as a listen back to the original, un-remixed version of the former so aptly demonstrates. Prior to chart success, bandleader John Smith and a somewhat transient lineup—including a full-fledged horn section—made regional noise with the independently released Can’t Turn It Off and That’s Right. When percussionist Valerie Day took on the role of lead vocalist in 1983, she added a crossover sensibility to the group’s sound while simultaneously affirming its underlying soulfulness.

Nu Shooz - BagTown

Although Portland-based Nu Shooz may eternally be associated with the dance-pop-driven sounds of the mid-1980s (thanks to their global club and radio smashes “I Can’t Wait” and “Point of No Return”), the band’s foundation lays quite firmly in funk and soul, as a listen back to the original, un-remixed version of the former so aptly demonstrates. Prior to chart success, bandleader John Smith and a somewhat transient lineup—including a full-fledged horn section—made regional noise with the independently released Can’t Turn It Off and That’s Right. When percussionist Valerie Day took on the role of lead vocalist in 1983, she added a crossover sensibility to the group’s sound while simultaneously affirming its underlying soulfulness.

Three decades after that initial commercial spurt, the Shooz have gone back to their roots with BagTown, an unpretentious helping of straight-ahead funk with no frills. Driven by flavorful subtlety and laid back vigor, the now 12 members-strong outfit conveys a simple message of positivity and good times on nine cuts that embellish a phat bottom with light pepperings of jazz and pop. The opening title cut, describing an imaginary destination marked by creativity, sets the groove in motion tastily with cool horn swag, a fluid vibraphone solo, and knee-deep keyboard work. It flows evenly into the snazzy “Soul Cushion,” which finds Day and fellow vocalists Tracey Harris and Margaret Linn proclaiming, “…it’s time to get up out of your chair, and signify just what it is you believe in!”

The ensuing, mellow “Your Perfect Day,” intro’d by soft keys streaming into an indomitably deep bassline, achieves a prudent balance between vocals and rhythm section that makes the memorable lyrics all the more meaningful. “When you’re awake late at night, and you’re thinkin’ ‘bout the problems of the world,” Day croons, complimented by a husky male backing quip (“That’s what it is”). Next, the realization sets in: “And you escape into your fantasy, whatever you want your world to be…that’s what it ain’t.” But the subsequent vocal riffing and stream of sanguine horns, potent guitar licks, and in-the-pocket drums proceed to glidingly drift into a rhythmic daydream that is impressionably comforting. 

The Shooz flex their souls further on the gently coaxing “Tell Me a Lie.” With Day employing an inherent curiosity and pureness in her phrasing, her subject would be hard-pressed not to oblige to her request for “just one night…give me a sign that I can decipher…a hundred million things about you.” The groove behind her sways in a bossa nova-esque fashion nourished by a potpourri of percussion and shakers interplaying with the melody lines and smart sax solo. Despite the disparate nature of the tune and the successive go-go drive of “Way Outside,” the aural mood and melodic flow permeating BagTown are not lost.

In addition to the rump-shakin’ goodness of “Way Outside,” the song’s testament to individuality is transparently contagious: “I always drew outside the lines, and all my life I knew a fundamental truth, when the teacher said that I was different from all the other kids down in room 22.” The beat of “Outside” combined with the back-to-basics feel of the words results in what could be considered the centerpiece of BagTown, placing the band’s knack for subtlety in a particularly celebratory setting. Following suit are “Crazy Thing” and the magnetic “The Party’s Not Over.”

The penultimate selection of BagTown, “The Party’s Not Over,” holds true to the Shooz’ intention to enjoy living as much as possible, reminding listeners of possibilities within reach before slowing the tempo down for the closing “The Rail I Ride.” The acoustic departure strips the sound down to guitar, intermittent touches of light drums, and Day’s vocals. The words have a markedly more somber tone than the remainder of the album, but still possess a glimmer of hope. Consequently, the number makes for a surprising, but effective, “chill” moment in an otherwise kinetic ride. Highly Recommended.

by Justin Kantor
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