For a band like Major & the Monbacks, the history of classic rock and soul is a fun-filled playground ripe for exploration. The septet is a group of crack instrumentalists who can toss off retro-soul revivalist riffs in their sleep, but whose sense of restless exploration has them bouncing from country-funk riffage to Beatlesque harmonies, often sounding like a looser, jammier St. Paul & the Broken Bones.
The group got its start in Norfolk, Va., as a band of kindred spirits, deeply in love with the endless possibilities of rock music. Two sibling pairs, each of which included one of three multi-instrumentalists/lead vocalists, found that they wanted to make music that captured the effusive spirit of their musical heroes.
“We’ve always listened to and always had deep roots in ’60s and ’70s bands and that style and time in music,” admits Noel Friedman, who sings and handles keys and guitars in the group. “That era of music really inspires our songwriting and what we want to do as a band.”
And it’s clear that what Friedman calls the “twin poles” of the group, the Beatles and the Band, clearly drive much of their sound. Warm, funky organ lines, sharp guitar lines that know when to lay it on thick and when to rest in the pocket, and a wide-ranging investment in early rock ‘n’ roll mixed with adventurous arrangements are their hallmark.
“We do a kind of middle ground between those two,” points out Friedman. “We like to think we put our own spin on it.”
And while the band occasionally veers into homage, particularly when a song’s lyrics and structure have a paint-by-numbers feel that gets by on their superb execution, you can tell they are pushing themselves, reinventing a style and aesthetic in a way that feels new and old. Friedman name-checks Dr. Dog as a contemporary band who does something similar, inspiring the group to greater artistic heights.
“We don’t want to be labeled as a strict revivalist. And our first album is a little more blue-eyed soul, revivalist-type, but I don’t think it was ever explicitly on our minds,” he says a tad defensively. “We did kind of the soul revival thing for a while. Doing soul covers, Motown covers — which is fun — but I think we just kind of had to make a decision to do a little more than that.”
That’s in part why the Monbacks enlisted fellow Virginian Matthew E. White to produce their sophomore follow-up LP Moonlight Anthems, which comes out on Yep Roc on June 16. The album finds the group in tighter, fuller form — jamming out on their innate good vibes and more finely polishing their vocal and instrumental arrangements.
“We wanted to get away from that loose feel a little bit and make actual studio recordings, instead of sounding like a live band in a room, ” says Freidman of the band’s decision to have White produce.
“We were kind of just blown away by his albums that we’d heard, especially the Natalie Prass album that he produced. We’d had horns along up to that point, and with his horn-heavy arrangements we thought he could help us out, too.”
The result is an album that, along with the years of relentless touring that won them the attention of a label like Yep Roc in the first place, seems set to put them in the same conversation as classic rock-minded indie-rock peers like Dr. Dog or Foxygen. Songs like the sun-kissed “We are Doing Fine” have the potential to blast out of car speakers just as Tame Impala did two summers ago.
In other words, Major & the Monbacks have that deadly combination of sound, chops, and determination to be one of those next-big-things you’re always hearing about.
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