Album Reviews

The Whitefield Brothers – Earthology

(Now Again) UK release date: 11 January 2010

On the follow-up to their cult classic 2001 album In The Raw, Munich’s Whitefield Brothers have pieced together a patchwork of disparate – but always funky – sounds from around the globe, blending styles, reversing plate tectonics, and perhaps attempting to bring all of Pangaea back together in a unifying sound. The really surprising thing is that, outlandish as it may seem, they’ve succeeded marvellously.

Earthology is the culmination of as much as 15 years of recording, and hours of research on the part of Jan and Max Whitefield (including a trip by Max to Burma to study traditional Saing Waing music). Adding onto the funk and “raw soul” sound of In The Raw, they’ve layered rich and varied instrumentation, enlisted the help of a who’s who of vocalists from all corners, and created something really fantastic. Sessions for Earthology brought the experimental duo and their cavalry of friends to studios in New York, Munich and Berlin.

The album’s musical landscape is created by everything from Asian gongs and flutes (Alin), African strings (Safari Strut), and Central American percussion instruments (Ntu). And Vampire Weekend fans, beware: the Whitefield Brothers have got the African polyrhythm market cornered. Guest musicians include members of the Express Brass Band and �Dap-Kings (providing supremely funky horn stabs), the Antibalas, El Michels Affair and Quantic. Guest vocalists include Edan and Mr Lif (The Gift), Bajka (Joyful Exaltation), Percee P and MED (Reverse).

Sounds seem to originate on all continents, and instrumentation varies so wildly – often causing new and unexpected results as instruments are used in ways their tradition never accounted for – that it would be easy to write off Earthology as an incohesive mess. But the Whitefield Brothers are grounded in soul – remember, In The Raw pre-dated the Amy Winehouse-driven soul revival by a few years – and the whole thing comes off as nothing more or less than great soul and powerful funk channeled through a pantheon of influences.

Earthology opens with the siren’s call Joyful Exaltation, driven by distorted freeform drum and bass grooving, and Bajka’s subtle sing-talking. “Lord knows where you’re coming from,” she says, and she may as well be talking directly to Jan and Max here. Flutes and church organs run amok. Safari Strut mixes African sensibilities with American R ‘n’ B, mixing lush bass and saxophone with the mystique of a frantically plinking xylophone. Lullaby For Lagos is the album’s barn-burning fast number, featuring jazz guitars and lightning fast drum work.

The album’s standout track is The Gift, on which Edan and Mr Lif rap-spit about the miracle of homeostasis (somehow sounding angry about it) over a sultry horn line and polyrhythmic cowbell. In a bizarre mix of styles, Mr Lif cues a jazz flute solo: “The tactics of a true technician are touched on totally by a talented musician; listen.”

The Whitefield Brothers have somehow succeeded in folding the world in on itself with Earthology. The sounds on this disc are mixed together in such a way as to be totally surprising, totally new, and yet completely cohesive. Everything here makes sense in its own way. The Whitefield Brothers’ knack for raw soul is intact -� and perhaps more firmly rooted than ever – but they demonstrate handily that there’s no room for isolationism in 21st century soul.

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