Rich in exploratory psychedelia, industrious songcraft, and multi-dimensional soundscapes, Elevate is the fifth full-length studio LP from future-funk cosmonauts Lettuce. It arrives today, nearly four years in the making, determined to test the boundaries of the group’s own creations, and promises to probe new portals in sound.
Coming in at a bulbous eleven tracks, Elevate was co-produced/mixed by Russ Elevado (D’angelo, Erykah Badu, The Roots) and features album art by Harriet Woodman; it eschews convention and instead offers a carefully curated experience that fearlessly embraces the unknown. Recorded at Colorado Sound Studios in Denver, CO and mixed/mastered in the sublime confines of Sonic Ranch Studios in Tornillo, Texas, the album is a bold leap of faith, one that redefines the band’s established modus operandi. Elevate discovers Lettuce paying subtle homage to fallen heroes whilst blazing yet another trail of fire in their wake; a kaleidoscopic document that soars above the clouds and dances in the tailwind of adventure.
Elevate arrives at a time when the band has been surfing yet another meteoric swell. In just the past year, they’ve performed a high profile Jerry Garcia Band-themed set at LOCKN’ that featured Bob Weir and John Mayer among others. A few months later came a historic engagement with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, both performances are considered instant classics. On the heels of that glory, they holed up in the studio to inspire a vibe. Elevate is the band catching a nearly perfect backside barrel, thriving inside a cresting wave of collective elation.
The current configuration of Lettuce includes founders Adam Deitch (drums), Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff (guitar), Erick “Jesus” Coomes (bass), Ryan Zoidis (saxophones)—a.k.a. the “Core Four”—plus Eric “Benny” Bloom (trumpet) and Nigel Hall (keyboards and vocals), though the latter pair of players have been full-fledged family for years. These six men have taken an oath both filial and artistic; the brotherhood among this G unit serves as a unifying force. Their creative and cosmic camaraderie translates through the art and to the listener in a universal language all their own. The addition of Russ Elevado to the entire experience is a game-changer, for as much as Lettuce deviates from what many people have come to expect, the fabric of this album—the vintage analog ethos that informs Elevate—is clearly the brilliance of the renowned producer/engineer.
“Russ is a really deep cat who respects the beauty and simplicity of an organic performance, captured through the finest vintage analog gear,” Ryan Zoidis explains. “He appreciates the imperfections that might surface without the use of Auto-Tune, quantizing or any heavy editing.”
Two decades ago, Zoidis was the first of the group to connect with Elevado, during D’angelo’s fabled Voodoo sessions at Electric Ladyland Studios in the late 1990’s. Zoid was merely present as a spectator, yet his observations that fateful evening made an indelible mark on the young saxman. This is a story that Ryan has relayed privately from time to time through the years. Long before Elevado agreed to sign onto this project, Zoidis would occasionally opine that were he to have his druthers, Russ Elevado would be behind the boards for Lettuce recording sessions. Alas, manifestation is a helluva drug!
I asked the saxophonist to reflect on Russ’s much-revered, old-school approach to making a record. “We spent almost as much time listening to the greatest records ever recorded as we did mixing our own!” Zoidis reveals. “You know, we would mix for a few hours, then just chill out and put on the Axis: Bold As Love [Jimi Hendrix] record, we’d be blasting it through the huge studio monitors, and the Neve [mixing console], and then we’d all just soak up that feeling.”
Zoidis continues, “Then, after that hang, we’d go back to mixing our stuff. The whole band definitely learned a ton making this record, by just being with Russ Elevado.”
Elevate is Lettuce’s first studio album that does not include founding guitarist Eric Krasno and the first since 2002 debut Outta Here sans contributions from keyboardist Neal Evans. Nonetheless, as evidenced on this vibrant communique, the streamlined Lettuce lineup is firing on all cylinders, and Elevado is nothing short of a shaman. Their collective vision and unwavering trust in one another has liberated them to co-create these songs, the band marinating them together, onstage in the moment, for several years. They masterfully capture both their robust performances and their rawest essence onto dusty, warm, spacious, analog tape. And let me be among the first to declare, unequivocally, that the fruits of this laborious-yet-enthralling process are pretty damn juicy.
Upon embarkation, an ethereal synth-sax eerily beckons a looming thunderclap, and what sounds like an organic 808 kick serves to wake the town. Following a heroic rumble, as exultant horns salute, “Trapezoid” is detonated with much pomp and circumstance, and Elevate achieves liftoff. Innovational and defiant, “Trapezoid” blows the Trap door clear off its hinges, and uncorks a new LETT era with bold bravado and reckless abandon. This triumphant opener is unlike any other spacecraft in their voluminous garage—think post-ATLien ghetto-future-bass, barreling through an unknown galaxy far, far away.
In an (apparent) deep bow to the revolution that was Prince, “Royal Highness” unleashes a synth-soaked stomper, sounding almost as if the late, great purple genius might descend from Uncle Jam’s Mothership, glass of shiraz, smokin’ a Parliament. This is heavy-handed funk articulated in paisley patterns, and “Royal Highness” introduces new LETT power to the next generation.
First single “Krewe” bats third, a feelgood banger and callback to quintessential late 70s/early 80s hip-hop park jams. Bronx bombast, velour tracksuits, and break dance battles flood the mind. Coomes and Deitch steadily pushing their low-end theory, Zoidis and Bloom’s buoyant brass an intoxicating rallying cry, with the “Krewe” coalescing around the undeniable organ hook.
“Smink Dabby” takes things in another divergent direction, with guitarist Smirnoff employing clairvoyant Eastern themes atop a sensualized Latin vibe, then reformulated into a warm boom-bap breakbeat. Throughout Elevate, “Shmeeans” is unshackled from the shadows, his axe fully unsheathed. As such, he summons the most invigorating guitar work of his career, and his inventive ideas flourish in the wild.
“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” is among the most beloved songs in the band’s canon, onstage dating back nearly a decade and belonging to a handful of familial projects. In the aftermath of mourning J Dilla’s tragic death, Deitch and Hall came together in a Brooklyn apartment to summon inspiration. Among what materialized: this scintillating arrangement of Tears for Fears‘ 1985 mega-hit. Elevado’s Soulquarian fingertips are all over this magic, as Hall digs as deep as ever for a pristine testimony that subtly embraces the spiritual. Before long, exhilaratory Gospel swells build to a glorious crescendo as Hall stacks spine-tingling harmonies, one atop the next, the band erecting a veritable kingdom beneath him.
“Gang Ten”, Elevate’s magnum opus, follows. The 13-minute excursion, dripping in holy Floydian matrimony, oscillates along a heavenly highway before Deitch commandeers the vessel with dusty, golden-era boom bap and Zoidis sets about charming the cobras below. Back-to-back at the halfway point, “Rule the World” & “Gang Ten” are Elevate’s emotional centerpiece—the latter song sans lyrics, yet still a sentimental sure-shot sent directly from their ol’ tickers to ours.
Lettuce has forever worn Tower of Power fandom like a badge of honor, and the influence is plain as day on a cold-blooded cover of “Ready to Live” [Lydia Pense]. This is a brief, euphoric number emboldened by blistering brass, augmented with a passionate lead vocal and choice Rhodes stylings from the newest band member, Nigel Hall.
Snap judgments aside, “Larimar” might be the sleeper cut on this entire record. Rising up from the charred remains of Dominican funk, “Larimar” communicates an unspoken fury that borders on unhinged. The song is without question classic Lettuce aesthetic, yet employs a smattering of elements that come to life on Elevate. Coomes and Deitch zig and zag with determination, the band time travelin’ and vibe javelin’ until Bloom hijacks the swaggering “Larimar” groove for a saucy trumpet solo, brimming with his outsized personality. There’s an understated, implied sensuality inherent within “Larimar’, and the song may have cracked that proverbial code: Yes, Lettuce can be sexy. But not for too long, as the stutter-steppin’ “Larimar” outro redirects their sail yet again, traversing back to the halfway point between Flood-era Herbie Hancock and The Meters, a neighborhood in which Lettuce has forever felt comfortable hangin’ out.
“Love Is Too Strong” is another chapter in the band’s evolutionary search for new land. The track features the album’s lone special guest, Marcus King, an honor that the young bluesman did not take lightly. The fresh-faced guitar prodigy has performed with Lettuce in the past and contributes his original song to Elevate, the band casting an even wider net and King offering a whiskey-soaked vocal weathered beyond his years. Much as they did behind singer Alecia Chakour on albums past, Lettuce creates a container for their vocalist to shine inside. In this case, it’s a soul-fueled paean that puts King’s name in lights, with Lettuce content to faithfully serve his song—all the while humbly making it their own.
In one of the more definitive juxtapositions of their career, “Purple Cabbage” is nothing if not an about-face. The intro hints faintly at the familiar, as this is the latest installment of the band’s decade-plus homage to the late hip-hop production pioneer James ‘J-Dilla’ Yancey. An ever-evolving suite and sentimental statement, one that began with “Mr. Yancey” (RAGE), continued with “Phyllis” (Crush), and delivers us here to the progressive crossroads of “Purple Cabbage”. A patient ascent that recalls FlyLo as much as the aforementioned Floyd, the live set staple is regulated by Deitch’s thumping kick and omnipresent snare-flam. But if anybody is leading us down the primrose path, it’s Jesus the sorcerer, Lettuce’s spiritual heartbeat who’s inimitable chi gives the band its sense of purpose and even an aura of righteousness. Meanwhile, “Purple Cabbage” goes way off the reservation, clocking in at nearly ten minutes in length; a fantastic voyage that ghost-rides the whip through Detroit slums and voodoo villages. Somebody cue the sirens and swing by the donut shop, for this is the new love movement.
If the album had concluded there, Elevate would certainly have been enough to satiate the hardcore LETT Army and newbies alike. But to bring it on home, Lettuce simply could not resist reprising their titanic opening salvo in a rub-a-dub style. Behold the majestic “Trapezoid Dub”, the record’s eleventh and final track. Ryan Zoidis is a certified Arkologist dating back to his deployment with Portland, Maine rootsmen Royal Hammer, and Adam Deitch studied the nuances of one-drop drumming under the tutelage of the legendary Jerry Wonder. Who knew that Elevado, already the LP’s secret weapon, also could mix dub like a mad professor? On the swan song, it’s as if the band tossed the keys of the LETT-mobile to King Tubby and said “Take us to your tomb!” The boys get blunted in the bomb shelter, as “Trapezoid” themes weave in and out of pristine yardie riddims. For nearly seven minutes, we all go subaqueous, a Rasta safari with smoked-out rudebwoys tunneling thirty thousand leagues deep. Ladies and gentlemen, you have arrived at your destination: Welcome to Elevation Station.
Lettuce – Elevate – Full Album
Words: B.Getz- upful LIFE
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