Three decades on since a gang of high school prodigies famously first united at a prestigious summer music program in Boston, and twenty years after their debut album Outta Here unabashedly announced them to the world, psychedelic funk-hop pioneers Lettuce hoo-ride back into town with their eighth full-length LP, the appropriately-titled Unify.
Lettuce Unify emanates brotherhood, evokes oneness, and embodies inspiration in the face of adversity. The 70-minute record sees the boys bound back to the freewheelin’ funk that made them famous, while unveiling some of the finest vocal cuts in their catalog. Yet the strongest songs on Unify are the ones that propel these certified cosmonauts on an intergalactic course, captaining bold excursions that tunnel further into exhilarating new portals of instrumental hip-hop and psychedelic sound art.
It’s ultra-rare that a group continues to fearlessly level up its artistic ambitions this deep into the game. Most established acts tend to lean safe and sound, resting on their laurels, if not their cred or clout. Lettuce continue to buck convention, refusing to be pigeonholed nor quantified while delivering what their dedicated fans have come to expect: Grade-A Lettucefunk. Unify reveals a Lettuce adept at pushing their own envelope on a never-ending search for new land, while maintaining their stylistic and energetic DNA to the core.
Tracked once again at Colorado Sound Studios, Unify was self-produced by Lettuce. The band took what they’ve previously learned under the expert tutelage of Russ Elevado and Joel Hamilton and applied it to their own collective sonic vision. The result is an album that feels as vital as it sounds, a warm, dynamic record that pulses, breathes, bobs, weaves, gasps, and exhales much like a living organism. The high-fidelity color and earthy textures reverberate as vibrantly as ever, somehow raising the bar from the excellent production on 2019’s Elevate and 2020’s Resonate.
The current iteration of Lettuce has been locked and levitating for the past five-plus years. The core four of Adam Deitch (drums, percussion), Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff (guitar), Erick “Jesus” Coomes (bass), Ryan Zoidis (saxophones) has been down by law since the Comm Ave jam sessions in the ’90s. In the ensuing decades, each member steadily stepping into their own as composers and producers. Eric “Benny” Bloom (trumpet) and Nigel Hall (keyboards, vocals) have long been familial and official, and their voluminous contributions on Unify are essential to the Voltronic elixir.
Lettuce – Unify – Full Album
“RVA Dance” kicks things off with the Lettuce you know and love. The opening salvo is reminiscent of the original funk blueprint that first made their bones around the turn of the millennium, albeit conceptually and sonically updated for the now. First single “Gravy Train” is another jam boasting classic LETT genetics juxtaposed with a contemporary verve, feel-good fatback funk that lives inside its syncopated groove.
“The Lock” is a rhythmic wonder cut from the same cloth: chicken-scratch, mean-mug, stank-face funk, freshly dipped in a fly whip, stutter-stepping through the hood. Jeffrey Lockhart, their mentor, sensei, and OG from the Wally’s days, slides through with his patented angular southpaw guitar for a song that bears his name in reverent homage.
When it comes to special guest bassist and funk pioneer William “Boosty” Collins, there is none higher. Bootzilla stomps through the proceedings on the elastic-thump of “Keep That Funk Alive”. As Deitch and Boosty told NPR earlier this week, the cut was seeded via Adam’s stealth sample, a clip he lifted from the Rubber Band Man’s hopeful Instagram missive that he delivered during the early stages of the pandemic. Over the course of a calendar year, the track evolved into the most crucial—and possibly impactful—collaboration of the band’s career, with an assist from longtime fam, gospel/blues vocalist Laneesha Randolph.
A nod to the days of trunk-rattlin’ systems setting off car alarms, the crunkalogic “Waffles” will make it clap. This hydraulic neck-snapper leaps out of the subwoofers and into your chest with a visceral physicality. Deitch and Coomes mine Fyre Dept. elements, Benny and Zoidis respond/react with authoritative brass blasts. On “Waffles”, Lettuce turn style, transforming the nuclear code into a syrupy, dubbed-out Dilla-fied groove, hot, drippin’ candle wax and smooth like butta.
Unify is sprinkled with a trifecta of interludes, or “‘Ludes”, a snippet series containing short, potent blasts of smoked-out sample source material. LETT improvise dusty fractal fragments. The purpose of the “’Ludes” is palette cleansing, setting the table for the track that follows, making the compositions connect in subtle symbiosis.
Riding high on the heels of his sensational solo LP Spiritual, released last year, Nigel Hall’s Hammond organ, synth, and piano work throughout Unify are mighty impressive. Nigel’s vocal leads are his finest on a Lettuce album. In the past, the group’s lyrics occasionally leaned towards vapid or sophomoric, but this record is brimming with words and messages that are considerably more mature.
“Everything is Gonna Be Alright” welcomes Nick Daniels III of New Orleans’ uncles Dumsptaphunk. Dr.Klaw himself steps up and shows out, complimenting Hall with a stirring vocal performance steeped in both the Crescent City and the church. The track features music by gospel legends The Clark Sisters, with original lyrics courtesy of Hall and Daniels.
“Change the World” is a spirited gallop that blows a sweet kiss in gratitude to spiritual forefathers Earth, Wind & Fire by way of Ryan Zoidis’ mellifluous soprano sax. Nigel summons something profound from within himself: “If you wanna change the world, you’ve got to change yourself first.” While Smirnoff may have written those words, Hall has been an open book with regard to his journey through addiction and into sobriety, and his brave transparency transmits through his voice on the uplifting track.
The swaggering “Let The World Know” is a purple-hued masterclass in dynamics, the whole team gettin’ into their Prince bag, emphatically announcing the arrival of a high-powered new generation. This sounds like brass heaven, Nigel’s synth game is type vicious, and Jesus unleashes the rare slap-style quite effectively. “Get It Together” is another unspoken – yet potently communicated – love letter to the legendary Tower of Power; signed, sealed and delivered directly to the soul with the requisite East Bay grease.
To my ears, these last four tracks are a cut above, featuring some of the most rewarding compositions in the canon. Lett’s place a laser focus on the experimental genius of lab-cabin Colorado.
Shmeeans worked up “Shine” from a sample and a demo, rallying the troupe to build lush soundscapes into a boom-bap bliss. The squad manifests somewhat of a Ronnie Foster vibe, reminiscent of The Ummah. Bloom lets the beat build like Tunechi, takes a deep breath, and blasts off into the stratosphere with his most brilliant trumpet solo captured on a Lettuce record to date. A page from the Linden Boulevard cookbook but whipped together with their own zest, “Shine” is the golden era revisited.
“Hawk’s Claw” probes dusty chambers thirty thousand leagues beneath the Temple of Boom, a phantasmagorical dragon’s lair located somewhere between Saturn and Shaolin. The title is a nod to the Spaghetti Western psychedelic garage-funk that was a hallmark of former keyboardist Neal Evans’s composition style. The chef here is no surprise, as this fantastic voyage has Deitch’s paw prints all over the cookware, but “Hawk’s Claw” is yet another exquisite example of the squadron coalescing their collective imagination and moving as one.
Something of a centerpiece to Unify, the triumphant “Vámonos” is among Lettuce’s most ambitious creations. Adam Deitch uncorks another future-trap thunderclap, a cataclysmic cannon blast that is at once Middle Eastern and Medieval, diabolical and defiant. Ryan Zoidis twists and turns the nobs like a true dub technician on the latest in the LETT lineage of anthemic bass bangers. A jubilant breakdance soundtrack, a lysergic safari through the desert, tunneling towards lost civilizations buried beneath centuries of rubble.
Born from a soundcheck jam that went viral on Instagram, “Insta-Classic” is Unify’s last song, and also among its most outstanding—nuanced, luminous, full-band instrumental storytelling executed without soloing. On the subway, we travel to Stapleton, Bed Stuy, Queensbridge, Harlem world and the boogie-down Bronx. All five boroughs are touched during one smoked-out train ride from the big city to the deep forest. A ghostly outro adds an ominous aura to the album’s final salvo, the dubbed echoes reverberating and hanging in the air for a few moments as if to tacitly remind us that we aren’t out of the woods just yet.