Thundercat carries the electro-funk torch

The bass and vocal firecracker’s newest album comes loaded with well-placed virtuosity and lively detours.

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Maxwell Heilman , Writer

Besides providing distinctly West Coast g-funk production Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” bassist, singer, multi-instrumentalist and producer Stephen Bruner’s traveled all over the musical map — providing his distinct style in everything from crossover thrash to underground rap. He now returns to his artistic persona Thundercat with a 23-track opus providing a wild ride through his eclectic influences and infectiously musical expertise.

free feeling without inhibition

Those looking for an organized musical package will have trouble understanding “Drunk” as an album. Bruner operates as a jazz musician in that his work comes from free feeling without inhibition. Whether he tags flatulence samples to the end of the Jaco Pastorius-esque bass feature “Captain Stupido” or goes on a 26-second tangent through “I Am Crazy,” Bruner’s whimsical sense of humor and unpredictable choices recur from start to finish.

A clear distinction between the singles and deep cuts becomes clear, as the former carry a lot more weight than the latter. This makes more hefty tracks like “Show You the Way” and “Walk On By” exceptionally memorable, with singer Michael McDonald’s perfect timbre and seemingly limitless range stealing the show in the former and Kendrick returning Bruner’s previous favors with a killer verse in the latter. However, “Drunk” starts living up to its name when tracks like “Blackkk” come with messy production and unclear song structures. Many tracks on this album achieve flash, but fall short fusion legends like Metheny and Pastorius.

Bruner’s voice, bass and production commingle fairly seamlessly, taking precedence depending on what each song needs. “Uh Uh’s” lightning-fast bass solos never delve into full-on free jazz as palatable vocal cadences hold his fretboard wizardry together. In a similar way, the disco drum loop and ‘80s-inspired synth of “Tokyo” still finds grounding in Bruner’s exuberant lyrics and processed bass riff. Unfortunately, the jarringly cheesy drum loops — albeit a thought out stylistic choice — make these and many tracks a difficult listen as they often clash with other elements.

experiences with depression, anxiety and substance abuse

With most of the songs on “Drunk” clocking in at under three minutes, Bruner obviously has no need for long-winded stories or engrossing journeys. His music feels fun and danceable, holding to the traditional feel-good escapism of old cats like Tower of Power. Many of the stories told in these tracks cover day-in-a-life experiences with depression, anxiety and substance abuse, which never becomes depressing and shocking for its own sake. With the exception of “Drink Dat,” in which Wiz Khalifa comes off like the one intoxicated person in a public space everyone wishes would leave, a compelling aura of sarcasm and self-awareness remains present.

“Friend Zone” and “Where I’m Going” bring Bruner’s songwriting chops to the forefront, with his virtuosic style of playing becoming the foundation instead of the focal point. His lines masterfully downplay their complicated nature so one might not realize it until trying his hand at playing it. “Inferno” similarly uses technical facility as Bruner makes wonderful use of his extended-range instrument. Craig’s flat drum production and cheesy synth still harms the cohesion of songs like “Jameel’s Space Ride,” but when his approach works, it works well.

For all its twists and turns, “Drunk” ultimately remains listenable. Remembering each track as its own unit might take listeners multiple run-throughs, but Bruner’s distinct singing and bass playing give many songs enough character to merit inclusion. While some might yearn for a more compact offering and more nuanced production, Thundercat’s playfully musical electro-funk album will get listeners moving.

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