now – The Codetalkers
The Codetalkers find themselves in a precarious position. For years, they've toured with Colonel Bruce Hampton, an amiable arrangement that aided both parties. The Colonel found a likeminded backup band filled with high caliber musicians; The Codetalkers found instant credibility when attached to Hampton's name. The band also gained lessons in The Colonel's mythical notion of Zambi, a free-for-all improvisational style that isn't afraid to rely on weirdness. With Hampton in tow, The Codetalkers became an acid-drenched swing/funk band, and after touring with guest Jimmy Herring, their popularity increased to the point where many fans had begun to view them as the most underrated act in the jamband scene.
Now the Colonel and The Codetalkers have effectively parted ways. They will be teaming up for select shows, but due to health concerns, Hampton's role in the band has been severely diminished. This development essentially removes the comic relief from the live show, and with Hampton being absent, it significantly reduces the chance of someone falling asleep onstage (as Hampton has been prone to do when in poor health). As The Codetalkers release their new album, now, they find themselves with one foot rooted in the past and one foot in the present.
Nearly one half of the album seems to reside in the old acid-swing territory. The opener, "Ike Stubblefield," has an infectious boogaloo feel. The psychedelic hoedown of "The World Comes Tumbling Down" starts strong but never quite runs the risk of spiraling out of control in a rendition that plays it safe and lacks the excitement of its live brother. On the contrary, "Saved by the Same Thing"’s disco funk creates an intense, hip-shaking groove. Speaking of grooves, "Million Dollars" pretty much hits one slow funk groove and never wavers, all the livelong day. The oddball closing track, “Sound Sister,” features cameo vocals and a guitar solo by Hampton in a nod to late 1970s Parliament-Funkadelic.
The other half of the album is composed of songs that have more of a pop sensibility. Front man Bobby Lee Rogers relishes the vocals on "Broken Home," diving into the pessimistic lyrics of this mellow rocker. The early 1990s seem to be represented in a few of these songs, with “Blow My Brains” harkening back to the grunge of Alice In Chains and the stirring ballad “Worlds Apart” evoking shades of Achtung Baby-era U2. The latter contains great poetic phrases that are paired with a very accessible melody to create a captivating number.
Of all the material on now, the pop-oriented songs are easily the best compositions, showcasing Rogers’ mature songcraft and deeper lyricism. That being said, the old acid-swing numbers are much more fun and display a carefree vibe with senseless lyrics. Unfortunately, these diverse styles of music seem to work against one another, leaving The Codetalkers with a bit of an identity crisis. Without a clear artistic focus, it’s difficult to enjoy now and its constantly flip-flopping moods. If the pop numbers are an indication of The Codetalkers’ future, they’re likely headed in a vibrant direction. However, the band needs to make a choice. Now that Hampton has moved on, they need to select an artistic path. Until they make that decision, The Codetalkers are liable to leave fans disappointed because albums like now are too thematically indecisive to be enjoyed from start to finish.