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Sexmob first came together, just over 20 years ago, as the Downtown Scene version of a bar band: pugnacious and maniacal, insubordinate but astute. The group — Steven Bernstein on slide trumpet, Briggan Krauss on saxophones, Tony Scherr on bass and Kenny Wollesen on drums — could always be found one night a week at the Knitting Factory's Tap Room, putting pop tunes through the wringer for a boisterous crowd.
Cultural Capital is the eighth Sexmob album, and the first in four years. It manages to be both a glowing embodiment of the band's style and something of a departure, at least in one respect. While Sexmob has always been known for those reinterpretations of familiar tunes, from Prince's "Darling Nikki" to Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die," this album is the first to consist entirely of Bernstein originals, in an earthy range of styles.
Whatever that frame of reference — from parlor-esque jazz rumba on "Step Apache" to Sun Ra-style exotica on "Hear You" — the music holds true to the proprietary Sexmob sound, which hasn't really changed in 20 years. (To be clear: that's a good thing.)
Wollesen and Scherr (who have deep experience as a rhythm team even outside the band, with guitarist Bill Frisell and others) know how to bring tension and unpredictability to any groove. And Bernstein's hookup with Krauss is still a rugged yet reactive thing: Hear how naturally they move in and out of bleary sync on "Bari Si," over a fat, swinging beat.
There are other nods to the jazz tradition on Cultural Capital, including "Lacy," a nifty tribute to soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, one of Bernstein's heroes. "Golden House," with its second-line strut and bouncy horn riff, evokes the modern-day Preservation Hall Jazz Band — at least for the first four minutes, before it steps through a side door.
At this point, Sexmob is a collective ideal, as much as it is a band (or a brand). Every member has other affiliations, both as a leader and a sideman, but their vibe together remains distinct. Nobody else sounds like this band. And it's no small marvel that Bernstein's crew can still make it feel like a fresh idea.