Live, band-driven hip hop is a lot of fun and it's no wonder Portland has embraced Grant Street Orchestra, who this week make the Big Easy party central for the release their debut full-length Passionately Late. Harking back to early-'90s hip hop, with some contemporary underground flavor, it's an album that does well to translate the band's on-stage energy and sounds great in the headphones.
GSO ride two primary strengths: The chemistry of co-MCs Mint and I-Kue and the pop of Henry Redman's sax and Geoff Zimmerman's trumpet in the horn section. They manage to ride the low rumble of Jurassic 5's sound, keeping interest high with deliveries that switch up and jump on top of each other, alongside the high-end of classic Motown soul and big band. There's a smooth rolling introduction to "As Time Goes By," out as a single for some time, which morphs into the kind of acid jazz Guru made popular. "Boris Karloff" features interesting rhythms created by the chaotic drumming of Charlie Sichterman (also in This Way), which refuses to settle into a backbeat and brings the band up to a pretty great instrumental break late, just as a gang vocal makes everything primal and guttural.
"Phone Sex" is probably the standout track, though, with an Andy Barbo guitar riff, muted until a full jailbreak that might remind anyone who hung around Burlington, Vermont, in the early '90s of the underappreciated Belizbeha, who were similarly constructed. Mint and I-Kue are sharp and witty and the band build behind them into a finish that's as much rock as anything else.
If anything, Grant Street just might lack a little substance. As they say in "In Check," which reminds of Del the Funky Homosapien, "we're all about fun," and that does come through — these guys are definitely a good time — but I felt like a couple of songs could use a little more grit. Songs where Portland is so prominently featured, like "City of Cracks," could use a little more underbelly, and a little less pine tree state.
But maybe that's unfair. It's probably just best to enjoy a band that deliver with a smile in their voice and can comfortably rhyme "scooter" with "Macintosh computer" and stop being so damn heady all the time. If you want underbelly and cynicism, just pay attention to the real world for a few minutes.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
PASSIONATELY LATE | Released by Grant Street Orchestra | with Sandbag + Model Airplane | at the Big Easy, in Portland | Oct 14 | grantstreetorchestra.com