In the three years since Poetry n’ Lotion first started performing around the Bay area, the instrumental foursome has evolved their old-meets-new brand of acoustic jazz and bluegrass into a plugged-in sound that incorporates elements of hard, psychedelic and progressive rock, roots reggae, samba, gypsy jazz, ragtime, and even Irish folk music.
Having carved out a tidy niche for themselves in the local live scene, the members of PNL are finally prepared to prove their capabilities in the studio with their debut recording, Kentucky Monkey. [Album art by AZBA, Alexis Ziritt of Calavera Comics and S. Bradley Askew aka Smile Maker].
I got some background on the album from guitarist/occasional keyboardist Matt E. Lee.
The band credits Kentucky Monkey’s high production quality to Owen Meats and Dillon Griffiths of Short Circuit Studio. The album was recorded with their help in a mere two days and on the first, mandolin player Jim Page was so sick he had to bow out. So Lee, bassist Tom Murray, and drummer John Nowicki focused on finishing all the rhythms. Nowicki arrived prepared and laid down his beats with such proficiency that most of his parts on the album are first takes — no small feat. The rest was recorded the following day with all four members present, and instrumental texture was added a little later. When the foursome was finally happy with it, SCS stepped in to mix and master the recording.
The seven-track album encompasses the band’s core suite of originals. While the familiar songs get the studio treatment, they don’t lose their PNL appeal — a clear and present playfulness in approach and execution paired with undeniable musicianship and a tendency to shift rhythms and jump between genres within a single song.
“Serpenstance” opens the suite with insistent, fast-paced rhythms easing in and out of a driving groove with wah-wah guitar, piano, mandolin and fatty basslines riding and intertwining over top. The mandolin solos in “Jugglers Despair” give the rousing jazz-flavored number an antique carnivale feel, but then a surf rockin’ guitar and roiling drumbeat with a one-two crash of cymbals brings the tune back to the now. A loose, percussion-infused samba beat, bleats of organ and a catchy little mandolin riff introduces “Underdose,” which morphs into a heel-kicking bluegrass hoedown only to stray back to the easy hip-shaking beat. “Lotion Rag” incorporates Django-style ragtime complete with jaunty kazoo and banjo, music that might accompany a golden era silent film if it was a comedy. The dark and menacing-slow “Crucial Taunt” is heavy fuzzed-out rock n’ roll, the mean distortion of guitar contrasting against the sharp and sweet mandolin notes, drums and bass building the drama with heaving pulsing crescendos. “Sweet Relish” has a Latin jazz feel with wah-wah guitar giving it a funky little strut. The album closes with fan favorite, “Skinsuit,” a high-kicking roots stomper that dives in and out of a swaying reggae break. “Skinsuit” is the first song PNL ever wrote as a group and serves as an appropriate way to close a solid piece of work.
Kentucky Monkey got its name from a shot created during a slow weeknight at The Hub several years back by bartender/local musician Brian Katz, who was challenged to make a “manly” drink by pre-PNLers Page and Lee. Katz presented them with a special concoction he called a “Kentucky Monkey” — made up of 90 percent Kentucky Gentleman bourbon whiskey, 10 percent banana liquor. Several shouts of “more monkey!” later, the two were drunk on bourbon and sugar, realizing the next day that it goes down easy, but leaves a raging headache in its wake. Kentucky Monkeys are now reserved for special occasions only, and the album, the most special occasion of all, has been crowned with the Kentucky Monkey title.
4 out of 5 Stars by Leilani Polk