JC Brooks

The Neon Jungle

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When JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound released 2013's Howl, they were already a band in transition. They'd dropped the funk showcased on earlier records for an indulgent brand of raw retro-soul. Four years on, the shift is complete. In the interim, the band shed its name, left the Bloodshot label for Rock Ridge Music, expanded into a sextet, and embraced a more polished sound. Jungle is, according to Brooks, an album-length meditation on "one crazy, incredible night out." He's not wrong. Working primarily with producer/engineer Josh Richter at Victorian Recording, Brooks and company fully indulge polished funk, disco, pop, and...post-punk. What's more, despite the name change, Jungle feels more like a band record than anything they've done before -- everyone got in on the writing and arranging.

The title-track opener (produced by Isaiah Sharkey) sets the album's tone with a humid, analog synth line and hard-grooving hand percussion. The bassline picks the center to start its bubbling, and Brooks emerges with a seductive vocal that draws on late-'70s uptown soul before a chunky reggae vamp pushes the entire jam toward silky funk à la Leon Ware. The (literal) fingerpopping and handclap beat that introduces "Drive" (produced by Steve Gillis) provides a foundation for a driving funk bassline, razored synths, and squalling guitars, with a four-on-the-floor drumbeat. Brooks soars above with an anthemic refrain, underscoring his Eros-laden lyrics. The band reveals its love of Chic and the Brothers Johnson on the dancefloor burner "The Edge of Night." The gorgeous meld of Prince-esque sex funk and Steely Dan-inspired harmonics in "O.N.O." is one of the set's standouts. The album's theme is solidified, as lyrics here and throughout refer to a one-night-only, grab-it-all-and-pack-it-in endgame. (For all the protagonists know, the world ends when the sun comes up.) The rave-up Prince party strut continues in "Heartbeat." Its hook is tight, and contains an even more unforgettable chorus amid compressed guitars and loopy synths that zigzag back and forth. Unfortunately, the loose funk-rock vamp in "Fade Away" is more an idea than a song. The ballad "One for Someone" doesn't really belong on this record, despite being a beautiful song. The restrained emotional drama in its first half is consumed by a messy, sprawling arrangement in the second, and there's no payoff. Luckily, the punky, jazzy, blues-rocker "Get Gone" and the testifying Johnny Taylor-styled disco swagger in "Watch Me" bring the album full-circle to end strong. Fans of Brooks' earlier records will have no trouble enjoying Jungle's new direction. What's more, the music on offer here has a wider appeal; it should attract -- and hopefully rope in for good -- a new gang of disciples to convert to their brand of sexed-up, nocturnal musical magic that Brooks and band deliver here with such passion and verve.

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