The Tontons, Sea and Stars EP
Ah, “Best Experimental,” that perennial catch-all category. For the past few years, it’s felt like the Houston Press Awards throws anybody it can’t easily categorize as going in one box or another into the category, with the end result that the “Experimental” label becomes a joke that doesn’t mean much of anything (much as I like Satin Hooks, for one, I was as flummoxed as they seemed to be when they got dumped in the category a few years back).
After re-listening to Sea and Stars, the debut EP from this year’s “Experimental”-ists The Tontons, though, I find myself sympathizing with the folks doing the nominating. How in the hell do you categorize this band? They’ve got thick, bluesy guitars that switch easily from trippy psych-jam to gentle jazz at the drop of a hat, a talented rhythm section that somehow pulls off blues, jazz, and funk rhythms without sounding like genre-hopping dilettantes, and singer Asli Omar, whose dusky, sultry, Nina Simone-ish pipes make my jaw hit the desk each and every time I sit down to listen to Sea and Stars. In the realm of music, “uniqueness” gets thrown around so frequently it barely means more than the HP‘s “Experimental,” but damn… I can’t speak for everywhere, but for Houston, at least, The Tontons are utterly one of a kind.
Despite the retro touches, the band doesn’t even fit in with the ’60s/’70s vibe they occasionally throw off (see “Jazz June,” congas and light funk guitars and all, for the most prominent example). These folks come off like street-jazz as interpreted by a band schooled more in postpunk dynamics than in bebop, which is a good thing, since the band seems to know exactly where each track on here needs to end. While pseudo-jazz stuff like this often seems to get bogged down in the noodly, improvisational aspects of the genre, The Tontons play it like a pop band, getting in, doing what they came to do, and then getting the hell back out again. And while fans of the improv side of things may disagree, I’m relieved as hell to hear it.
Atmosphere-wise, they’re like the bar band playing in some film adaptation of a William Gibson cyberpunk novel set a few decades into the future — mysterious and alluring, but still murky, dirty, and maybe even a little dangerous. Sure, Omar’s vocals are responsible for a large part of that, but fellow Tontons Adam Martinez, Justin Martinez, and Tom Nguyen deserve credit, too, for managing to take a sound that could easily be retreaded to death (and which probably will, in the post-Amy Winehouse era) and grafting it onto edgier sensibilities. The result is a set of smoky-sounding songs that swipe the best aspects of blues, jazz, and rock and crush them all together into some shiny new substance. I don’t know what the hell it’s called, but I want more of it.