The full moon is above you in a sea of black as a warm breeze sweeps around you. Your bare feet are cradled in the sand along the riverbank and the only sounds are the river lapping against the shore and crickets chirping in the bushes. The night is calm but there is still a slight electric charge to the atmosphere, leftover from a thunderstorm earlier in the evening.
The music on “A River’s Invitation,” the fantastic new album by the California Honeydrops, seems born from times like that. The Oakland group has been making a name for itself across the country with its soulful, lively shows that mix jazz, 1960s R&B, blues and second-line jazz into an irresistible dance party. On their latest studio album, Lech Wierzynski (lead vocal, trumpet, guitar), Ben Malament (drums, washboard, percussion), Johnny Bones (tenor saxophone, clarinet), Lorenzo Loera (keys, melodica) and Beau Bradbury (bass, percussion) take that live energy and craft it into a more intimate affair.
Songs move at a lazy stroll that linger in the sweet, soulful voice of Wierzynski, taking the time to revel in the sensual croon of the front man. “This Time” crawls at a punch-drunk pace with Wierzynski drifting over the wah-wah boogie in his divine falsetto and his voice slowly pulls at the heart-strings of a lover in the steamy “Cry Baby Blues.” A voice as pure and clear as Wierzynski’s simply isn’t supposed to exist and it’s a blessing to capture it on tape or in concert whenever you can.
But when you join Wierzynski’s voice with the incredible rhythm and feel of the rest of his bandmates, the music commands you to slip under the crystalline waters with it. “We’ll live our lives forever in our home among the tides,” Wierzynski sings on the title track, the humid groove surrounding him. The beat builds around Wierzynski’s wail, rising in energy and emotion until the band quietly meanders away, inviting you to see where they are headed.
The band marches in beautiful rhythm on “Rockaway,” and you can feel yourself lifting up into the sky on the swaying melody and subtly bouncy bass line from Bradbury. The fluttering guitar on the song creates a relaxed, atmospheric touch on the song that isn’t really present in the band’s live show. Most of the album, in fact, benefits from wispy flourishes of organ and trumpet that creates a gentler tone. It is like this is the music the band might play together, away from the spotlight.
However, the Honeydrops still know how to turn up the energy and get people dancing. The cute swagger of “When It Was Wrong” bounces like the best of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke with a smooth, Southern R&B flair. Punctuated with horns and a ridiculously catchy chorus, it can’t be denied. “Brokedown” is a tune, like “When It Was Wrong,” that has been in the band’s repertoire since its earliest days, and gets a polished reworking in the studio. The horns dance with the gleaming organ and percussion to lock you into a happy shuffle, before Wierzynski breaks you down and lifts you up on his glittering pipes, only to pass you back to the lively rhythm and bring it on home.
With “A River’s Invitation” the California Honeydrops happily take you to the river and drop you in the water, wary of its soulful powers. Let it surround you and wash you away.
- The California Honeydrops
“A River’s Invitation”
Notable Songs: “Brokedown,” “A River’s Invitation,” “Rockaway”
Release: Sept. 11, 2015