The Cactus Channel – Stay a While (2017 LP)

On their third album The Cactus Channel are out to demonstrate their natural evolution as a unit – and while they may have outgrown the Daptone reverence of their initial sound, they are unmistakably the same group, just one that has taken a great step forward.

The vintage tone of the dual guitars, the warm, talkative bass style, the jazzy organ, the funky drummer and the fat horn section are thankfully still all in place, with a combined effect of harkening back to a classic era of soul music. However, several members of the band have obviously enjoyed their time in the indie pop act Frida, as well as the recent collaborations with Nick Murphy and Ball Park Music’s Sam Cromack. For one of the key differences here is the introduction of not just singing, courtesy of guitarist Lewis Coleman, but pop song structures with a slightly quirky edge.

Coleman’s mournful vocals suit the atmospheric vibe of the new songs perfectly, providing a melodic focus that enables the other instruments to both support him and provide experimental splashes throughout.

To say that the horn arrangements really fill out the sound may seem like an obvious statement but the combination of Campbell Wheeler’s baritone and Jonathan DiNapoli’s tenor saxophones add so much to these songs. The parts are never obvious, always challenging themselves to add both melody and dynamics rather than any obvious Stax-style stabs. Sometimes the two saxes blend perfectly together and at other points, such as on lead single Leech, they take advantage of the distinctive bullish and sweet tones of their respective registers.

At its strongest moments the album manages to balance the familiarity that comes with chord resolutions and catchy melodies with unusual choices that put the listener on edge. How People Speak is almost unsettling, with Coleman’s unusual and light delivery being juxtaposed by the physicality of the horns and the thickness of the bass tone.

The bass and horns often help to keep the songs grounded in terms of key while the keys and guitar parts seem to be pushing against our expectations, whether that be with unexpected counter melodies, or knowing just right notes to play to create suspense. Instrumental CMMNR is an example of this, with the saxophones letting rip with energetic bursts of bullfrog-like staccato lines, as the bass moves around the rhythm before playing a mesmirising circular pattern further up the neck and the keys and guitar parts get a little freaky. This is weird mood music, but it’s a vibe and thoroughly endearing.

As if to clarify this, the following track, Cornchips, is a slow, atmospheric number built around a single note with a bed of horns and keys that build gradually. Pedals are depressed and sax notes rise and fall, with just the smallest amount of dissonance in parts to maintain a sense of tension.

This is a band that’s grown interested in what it’s like to not play it straight, and have consequently turned out a bold album of remarkable depth.

Originally published in Beat Magazine.

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