Thundercat: Ballad of a blissed-out bassman - The Buffalo News
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Thundercat: Ballad of a blissed-out bassman

Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner, might not be a household name yet, but if you've paid any attention to a trio of the most game-changing albums released over the past few years – Kamasi Washington's "The Epic," Flying Lotus' "You're Dead!" and Kendrick Lamar's "To Pimp A Butterfly" – you've heard the bass maestro's magic.

You can’t miss the man's influence on everything he touches – his uber-hip phrasing, his abundant, seemingly super-human chops, his intelligent, if way left-of-center, employment of Moog effects pedals, all combine to create a readily identifiable sonic fingerprint.

A jazz cat at heart, Bruner is also an R&B aficionado, and his keening falsetto singing voice is an instrument equally as formidable as his 6-string bass. So when Thundercat is running the whole show, not acting as an uber-qualified session man for his friends, a groundbreaking, wonderfully weird amalgamation of funk, R&B, soul, jazz, and psychedelic pop is the order of the day.

Two albums and one EP into his solo career, Bruner has fully hit his stride with "Drunk," (Brainfeeder) a spirited head-trip of a collection that suggests what it might sound like if the Flaming Lips covered some classic 70s Hall & Oates after ingesting a whole plate of magic brownies.

Thundercat, as a significant player in the whole Brainfeeder/Flying Lotus tribe that also includes Lamar and producer Flying Lotus, operates in a universe where strictures concerning musical genres simply don’t exist. So it feels natural when Lamar shows up to guest-spit a lengthy verse during "Walk On By," when Wiz Khalifa stops by to cut through the smoky haze surrounding "Drink Dat," and when Pharrell lends his smoky tenor to "The Turn Down." All of these tracks bring the cut-and-paste methodology of hip-hop to bear on what is essentially an electro-jazz and techno-soul party.

Bruner knows his music history, though, and if he comfortably incorporates Hip-Hop into his sophisticated harmonic mindset, he's not above copping to supreme admiration for 2 of the kings of what has hilariously come to be known as "yacht rock" – the smoother-then-you'll-ever-be team of Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins, who appear together during "Show You the Way," which they co-wrote with Bruner.

This is pure magic, a sultry and soulful updating of the Doobie Brothers' soul-rock masterpiece "Minute by Minute" viewed through the lens of Thundercat's freak-funk camera.

"Drunk" is a bit of a concept album, with references to drinking, the willful pursuit of altered perceptions, and the willingness to follow one's imagination down the rabbit hole providing conceptual connective tissue.

"It’s been a bit inspirational, the drinking," Bruner told Red Bull Music Academy Daily last week. "It has its ups and downs and everything, but I felt like it showed the human side of what goes on behind things."

The vibe is giddy, though, not hungover or depressed – Bruner is too committed to the child-like sense of humor he employs to poke at the heart of things to ever go down the dour route. Witness the self-deprecating "Captain Stupido" and the ode to all-pervasive social media "Bus in These Streets," both of which grin slyly, like a blissed-out Cheshire Cat.

While mainstream pop music continues its downward slide toward meaningless redundancy, albums like "Drunk" remind us that the only limits on the form are those adhered to by the artists themselves. Everything, despite the insistence of conventional wisdom, has not already been done.  Pop can still take us in wholly unexpected new directions. Follow the man with the bass down the rabbit hole, and see for yourself.

"Drunk" is out now in digital editions, but I wholeheartedly recommend you grab the vinyl version, which comes as a four-record set.

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