For those who have paid close attention to the rise of Boston's Soul Clap duo, from its days as a party-starting East Coast entity to its role now as an international unit with countless remixes and an excellent DJ Kicks contribution to its name, there is a lot riding on this debut album. Unfortunately, Soul Clap falls short of expectations with E-Funk, delivering an LP that takes its wide range of influences and turns them into an uncomfortably diverse set of songs that barely fit together, with a handful of highlights and some surprisingly low points strewn throughout.
Looking back, Soul Clap is an outfit that's always had a penchant for the weird. In fact, it's a place where the duo has shined many times before, displaying a masterful ability to combine disparate elements into smooth, cohesive tracks. Worthy examples of this include songs like the hauntingly off Auto-Tuning of "Lonely C" or the woodwind-section-meets-percussive-house remix of Grag Paulus' "Suchashame," both of which appeared on the pair's 2011 DJ Kicks mix (which was put together alongside like-minded NYC duo Wolf + Lamb). Yet, for one reason or another, the stranger inclinations which have defined Soul Clap don't seem to coalesce properly on E-Funk, as the album's combinations somehow seem forced.
Where past releases found Soul Clap opening up its bizarre production with slow builds and vast pockets of space, the flow here seems rushed. This may be due to the fact that the majority of the album's cuts are intended as proper "songs," their aim set somewhere between avant-pop and disco-house. True to the pop formula, these efforts usually clock in at less than five minutes and jump into their verses without engaging the listener in anything more than a cursory intro. Worsening matters, the vocals employed often obtrusively dominate the mix while Soul Clap's expert production unfortunately takes the sideline. For instance, the spacey, sleek dance-pop of a song like "Let It Go" gets overrun with ideas—the robot vocals instantly give way to melodies, which in turn hands things off to the vocals, and so on. This trend takes a variety of shapes throughout the LP, as Soul Clap jumps around from early-'90s-style breakbeat hip-hop on "Let's Groove On" to looped, basement funky house on "The Clapping Song" and even touches on a shamelessly retro slow jam with "Ecstasy." Through it all, there's no patience, no lurching anticipation, just intro, song, outro, leading to a disorienting listen with few spurts of palpable momentum. For a group that made its name by effortlessly tempting the listener into the darker, more abstract corners of house (and its relative offshoots) by dressing them up with smooth, jazzy trimmings, this inability to capture a distinct mood is certainly surprising.
Still, there are a handful of instances when the pair's ideas work. "TroubleTroubleTrouble" finds just the right balance where its counterparts fail, sounding like a song stuck inside an '80s-era Prince or Rick James intro. Later on, "Need Your Lovin" turns in a winning combination by pitting piano and vocal samples (credited to Mel B, but singing the lyrics to The Korgis' "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime") against an Afrika Bambaataa-reminiscent breakbeat, complete with DJ scratches and hypeman countdowns. The LP does end on a high note, as Soul Clap closes out with a five-plus-minute—mostly instrumental—jam filled out by a mass of layered woodwinds. "Islands in Space Pt. 2" is the kind of floating, understated space-house outing that most listeners likely expected to populate a sizable portion of E-Funk; it's unfortunate that it only appears in the album's closing moments.
In fairness, E-Funk is a debut full-length from a pair of producers operating within a genre that's arguably better suited for singles and EPs. That said, though the album comes a bit heavy on the retro vibes, its biggest shortcomings all seem to stem from the fact that there are just too many ideas at work over the course of the record. Ultimately, E-Funk proves to be an effort that finds its creators trying to pull in something that's just beyond their reach.