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Sexmob rejuvenates a trademark sound and style on 'The Hard Way'

The members of Sexmob (left to right): Tony Scherr, Steven Bernstein, Briggan Krauss, Kenny Wollesen
Greg Aiello
The members of Sexmob (left to right): Tony Scherr, Steven Bernstein, Briggan Krauss, Kenny Wollesen

Twenty-five years ago, when Sexmob released its debut album, Din of Inequity, the band was already a mascot for the pugnacious, voracious energies of a raging downtown scene. This was mainly due to the thermodynamics of its personnel: Steven Bernstein on slide trumpet, Briggan Krauss on saxophones, Tony Scherr on bass, Kenny Wollesen on drums. It also had something to do with the repertoire: Bernstein joints, Prince jams, the theme from Goldfinger. But when he reviewed the album for the New York Times, Ben Ratliff put his finger on another facet: “The first thing you notice is the production: raucous and dirty, vividly cranked-up.”

What Ratliff was alluding to was the handiwork of Scott Harding, aka producer-engineer Scotty Hard. On Din of Inequity, as on most of Sexmob’s subsequent studio releases, his gnarly sonic interventions made him a shadow member of the band — a scruffier George Martin to Bernstein’s heretic Fab Four. “As a producer I often find that I’m waiting for that moment of inspired wrongness,” Hard told me 20 years ago, as he was mixing Dime Grind Palace. This still seems to be his m.o., judging by Sexmob’s new album on the Chicago label Corbett vs. Dempsey, which comes with a nudge-nudge title, The Hard Way

There’s a proud ethic behind that phrase, conjuring a picture of sleeves rolled up, sweat beaded on a furrowed brow. But there’s also an acknowledgement that Sexmob can now make freely: its sound has become more than a trademark, gradually hardening (sorry) into a tradition. The Hard Way goes to a lot of places that no other band would think to go. And by the standards of this impossible-to-categorize, easy-to-recognize working band, it combines what you might call a classical approach with a radical new working method.

Consider “King Tang,” which pulls together a snaking horn line, a syncopated bass drone, and a blend of organic and synthetic dub rhythm. Here and throughout the album, Hard’s loops and fragments served as base material, over which Bernstein fleshed out the tune. Krauss, taking the first stab at a solo, ratchets into snarling overdrive straightaway, like Marshall Allen on the launch pad. Bernstein’s subsequent improv, with a Harmon-muted horn, takes the opposite tact, all murmuring mystery. Every moment feels charged with the possibility of surprise.

It’s worth pausing to point out how much mileage these musicians have racked up since Sexmob was known for routinely scheduled detonations at Tonic or the Knitting Factory. And not just the mileage, but the milieus: perhaps you’ve heard Scherr and Wollesen, for example, conjuring their juju in the Bill Frisell Trio. Their mutual awareness as a rhythm team is the most matter-of-fact miracle in the Sexmob playbook: hear the sinuous way they accelerate the tempo in the album’s opener, a Bernsteinian pledge of allegiance titled “Fletcher Henderson.”

Each of the album’s three featured guests is given room to shine, though in a fashion that keeps the focus locked on the band. DJ Olive brings the strongest dose of atmospheric abstraction on the album closer, “Dominion,” while Vijay Iyer plinks thoughtful commentary with a saloon piano (is it prepared, or merely weatherbeaten?) on “You Can Take a Myth.” But the strongest synergies, no surprise, are with John Medeski, a veteran Sexmob interloper whose Hammond B-3 lends a sanctified funkiness to the slow-drag “Banacek.”

But again, the most essential fifth wheel on The Hard Way is its namesake, who has shaped not only the album’s aural dimensions but its spatial and maybe spiritual ones as well. Those who’ve kept an eye on the scene for a while should recall a catastrophic accident Hard was involved in 15 years ago: he was a passenger in a taxi that got broadsided by a stolen car. He suffered a spinal injury that required major surgery, and left him partly paralyzed. Remarkably, Hard has persisted and thrived as a creative force — a fact that suffuses practically every moment and sprinkling of magic on this irrepressible album.

The Hard Way is out now on Corbett vs. Dempsey. Sexmob performs at Solar Myth In Philadelphia on May 19 and at Fotografiska In New York On May 30.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.