ALBUM REVIEW: Surprise Chef – ‘Daylight Savings’: a step up and out in cinematic funk

SURPRISE CHEF are a house-sharing quartet of Australian musicians who’ve deeply fallen for the funk. 

They run a whole operation out of that living space they have in the laidback suburb of Coburg, six miles from the centre of Melbourne: a studio, a record label … hey, most importantly for us, a very, very, very fine, cinematic, tight-assed, instrumental funk project.

They first piqued the attention of the groove cognoscenti last year, with the release of a debut LP, All News Is Good News, on their own College of Knowledge imprint last year. A limited pressing, it had soon gone. People in need were left spurned, wanting more. Wanting it.

It fell to Mr Bongo to pick up All News Is Good News for a repress and proper worldwide distribution; which they duly did, releasing it on July 10th. In our review, we found that it had a “… sense of a secret committed to tape and somehow leaked to the wider world … the air of a sudden impressionistic snatch, a glimpse from the ether, a moment that goes on to define your day; music overheard from a passing car or an open window.

“What was that groove? you think, wishing that you could capture it and remember it vividly and take it home. Well: now you can.”

But Surprise Chef weren’t content to rest there. All the while All News Is Good News was being welcomed as the message in its new Mr Bongo garb, they were back in their whites, sharpening the tools of the trade. They actually had a whole new menu which they were itching to debut. And so it is that Mr Bongo is primed and ready to issue the second Surprise Chef funk missive in under four months, Daylight Savings, come this Friday, October 16th. Let’s listen.

First impressions, if you’re at all familiar with All News Is Good News? They’ve inexorably, ineluctably, upped their game in little ways you can’t put a finger on. Daylight Savings: it’s incrementally brighter, louder, tighter, funkier – and you can’t exactly say where definitively. They always had it, and now they’ve somehow acquired a little more. 

There also seems to be a loose college theme running through the album, if the titles are to be our guide; “College Welcome”, “College Welcomes Carl”, “Deadlines” (this last mention enough to induce a Pavlovian response in yr reviewer, mopping his brow while he searches for procrastination self-help groups). Maybe we’re invited to approach the ten instrumental themes as the soundtrack to some imaginary movie of educational life; maybe, and my own preferred option, it’s their very own College of Knowledge we’re touring. Freshers, form a line.

Surprise Chef, photographed by Izzie Austin

We’re inducted with “College Welcome”. A thematic shuffle leads the way, distant, evocative, percussive hints of the swingin’ soundtrackery of Nicola Conte. There’s outside ambience, the whole recording set-up captured and breathing, alive. A sunbathed blaxploitation vibraphone and, of all things, a slide guitar opens out and lead us through the opening credits. It’s funk with a real ambient nuance.

And there’s an ominous, sustained organ opening for “Deadlines”, our eye is up high, zooming gradually in on a tight-knit groove of muted, chopping chords, that organ sustain gradually gaining a counterpoint. The beat is baggy, wants to shake a rather blissful tail feather. It finally releases us into the welcoming, glorious warmth of a vamping Fender Rhodes, a retro synth melody stopping by to elevate us, a vibraphone ringing. It’s as tight as you’d wish, as loose limbed as you need; you can’t learn that microsecond pitching that hits that temporal spot – you either got it or you ain’t. I imagine our putative film hero wholesomely necking a glass of breakfast milk before tossing the keys of his Dodge Charger from hand to hand, a knowing half-wink to camera. The guitar caresses a chord in ringing call-and-response with the vibraphone as the cymbals busy and susurrate.

“New Ferrari” was a single drop in advance of the album. Hell, I’m sorry; our protaganist has traded up and traded in on that big ol’ gas-guzzler. It’s also pretty much a perfect soundtrack to your own movie; slot it into your eight-track (or smartphone) and rev up the Ferrari (or Nissan Micra); transpose Surprise Chef into your personal film and watch it go widescreen. Hey: we’ve gone and embedded it for you down below.

It’s built on swaying percussion, little wah-wah and organ vamps, centre stage going to a so-kool early synth riff that’ll bring the heat haze shimmering off the blacktop. Careful with the bonnet rolls though, guys. You’l feel the need for a little James Brown soul ‘ugh’! Don’t suppress it. Well, if you’re amongst good friends.

“Washing Day”: well it sure ain’t the highlight of anyone’s life; but Surprise Chef, while cooling the tempo a little, lend the laundry some real romance and not a little David Axelrod broad-canvas expansiveness and brightness. If it’s raining and you can’t hang it out, this tune’ll at least ensure there’s sunshine and closed-eye shufflin’ as the drops marble the windows. Vibes and wah-wahs drift out into a blissful, semi-dream state. 

The “College Welcomes Carl” is Blue Note-deep. The guitar riff, cycling over a three-note motif, is insistent with a Grant Green tonality, and it bursts into an easier place of wobbly, cooing 70s’ synths and warm organ in consort. Not for the first time this year I wish I was at a gig; this particular inversion a sunny dusk, an outside stage and Surprise Chef; especially as Carl’s welcome surges up through the gears into an absolute explosion of wall-of-sound groove, guitars fuzzed up in a psych-soul manner a la Rotary Connection, demanding you freak your ‘fro.

“Laundry Day”; now “Sick Day”. A phat synth squelches a theme as muted guitar chords lurch. There’s that halting sense you get on a sick day in the guitars: body and brain not quite in step. It’s darker but hell, it still wishes to coax life from your limbs. It is proper incidental funk, with a seemingly diaristic aesthetic at play. You can imagine the four of them getting together in the kitchen mid-morning and one saying: “Jesus, I feel rough!” while the others say: “Wanna write a song about it?”

“Dinner Time” has the discipline of wah-wah and what sounds to be a Farfisa bringing the opening melodies, as bongos patter away. It loosens into a pretty little bass strings-led melody line. That organ really has more than a little of mid-period Felt in its handling; the way it teases new meanders from the melody, playing off the guitar, contrapuntal. The percussion breaks through and skitters an insistent polyrhythm before we whoosh into a spacier place, aloft suddenly in a swooping synthscape.

“Daylight Savings”, the title track, has all the jazzy optimism of the brightening spring days when it was laid down. Its discipline stems from the rhythm section up;  a little guitar run preludes a bright mid-tempo organ run with a touch of Persia about it. If you love Big Crown’s retro groove seekers El Michels Affair, you’ll have plenty room in your heart for this. There’s a wavering, lambent, climbing synth that recalls John Barry’s “Florida Fantasy”, from the Midnight Cowboy soundtrack, in it’s optimistic, quirky sheen.

The chase sequence atmospheres of “Leave It, Don’t Take It” puddle a little shadow from the palette as it leads us scrambling down wah-wah alleys and out into a headlong plaza of percussive expression. Such a pacey flight leaves us with “The Limp”, a graceful, Italian-sounding filmic jazz closer. Don’tcha love the shimmer a deftly handled vibraphone can bring to a party in your ears; it’s almost a love theme, sophisticated, grand, spacious. It resolves this particular imaginary soundtrack, but in accordance to a theory sometimes subscribed to John Coltrane, the music floweth ever on; we’re now just waiting for Surprise Chef to tune in again.

Where we found previous outing All News Is Good News to be a best-kept secret, the sound of a band overheard drifting toward you, I’d now venture that Daylight Savings is the sound of a band who have fully removed their light from a bushel and who you’ve stumbled across playing in the lush verdancy of a secret garden stage at a festival. Aaaah! Now, this is where I needed to be, you confirm to yourself as the groove swathes you. They’ve given things a polish at the front end while losing absolutely zero of their off-kilter cinematic charm. It’s a step up and a step out, and it’s really very ace.

Surprise Chef’s Daylight Savings will be released by Mr Bongo on digital, CD and vinyl formats on October 16th; although the limited white vinyl has sold out, there’s still a chance to buy a copy from the band’s own Australian run. Head over to their Bandcamp or the Mr Bongo store to secure yours.

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