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Album of the Month: "Libra Stripes" by Polyrhythmics

Literally and figuratively, funk is a four-letter word. Through a process of reiteration and misappropriation, funk emerged from radically creative African-American empowerment and has since been diluted to its goofiest signifiers. Funk, in most quarters, is considered frivolous.

Yes, the adepts—James Brown, George Clinton, Sly Stone, Prince—are proponents of  having a really good time. But they’re also dead serious about fun as a means to an end: Free your mind and your ass will follow. The destination is liberation.

I say all this because Libra Stripes is 40 minutes of real-deal, straight-up, hardcore funk. No platform shoes, star-shaped glasses or Afro wigs here. No retro-soul vocals or pat exhortations to fall back on, no venerable front-person singing a redemption song to earn your empathy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that stuff—but this is something else. Polyrhythmics make dense, driving, instrumental dance music, living and pulsing and sweating, made by eight stellar musicians who are all business, and their business is making you move.

The members of Polyrthymics are part of a loose-knit scene of musicians who come together in and around the Sea Monster in Wallingford. This homey little place is Ground Zero for hard funk in Seattle; go when there’s music on and you will dance. The prime instigator is guitarist Ben Bloom, who also plays in Rippin’ Chicken and Unsinkable Heavies. But where those groups ply funk forms that are buoyant and bouncy or sinuous and jazzy, his Polyrhythmics are as heavy as a wrecking ball. They don’t fuck around. They play out frequently and have recorded a half-dozen or so highly collectible vinyl 45s for a couple of different U.S. labels. Libra Stripes brings to bear all their kinetic energy in a sustained, focused studio albums for the first time, and it smokes.

What you hear here is polyglot funk, postmodern and well-studied but not without unhinged moments. Various tongues are deployed in service of ambiance—Fela’s woozy Hammond organ, Joe Bataan’s conga-driven percussion, Bobbi Humphrey-esque flute, Family Stone-style horns, dubby analog effects, hip-hop-ish syncopation. Ambiance, in turn, serves groove. Combined, the two create an all-consuming sound.

Whether it’s the sauntering, Afro-Latin swagger of “Moon Cabbage,” the ’70s cop-show theme-song tension of “Bobo” or the Southern-fried soul of “Skin the Fat,” the music is simultaneously referential and wholly original. There is, after all, a long, star-studded legacy of funk, and these guys are wise to keep in touch with their forebears, both to provide technical foundation and to understand where and when to stray from established templates.

There’s nothing experimental or out-of-bounds here; that would feel like trying. Instead there’s only doing. Embodiment. Of the funk, and all the freedom it brings.

Libra Stripes by Polyrhythmics comes out Nov. 2 on Kept Records. 

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