Michael Collins and Sasha Desree of Silk Rhodes (Courtesy of Theo Jemison)
The group's name is a giveaway. Silk, as in smooth, and Rhodes, as in Fender Rhodes, the electric piano that gave a signature sound to a lot of ‘70s funk and soul. By and large, that’s the spiritual model for what we have here on Silk Rhodes’ self-titled debut album.
It’s there from the first notes of the first track, simply titled “Intro” — smooth funk going back a few decades, but stripped down to the bone by a couple of mad sonic scientists.
And the album cover, too. It’s a photo of a miniature Silk Rhodes logo on a young woman’s tongue, like a pill. Well, the album is made up of pieces that are basically miniatures -- concise, minimalist sketches. “Pains,” for example, is like a distant dream of a soul song, alluringly so.
So who are the guys behind this? Producer Michael Collins and singer Sasha Desree came to California from Baltimore and New York, respectively, via rather circuitous routes, becoming friends and collaborators along the way.
The story goes, and we may as well believe it, that the two turned their 1997 Honda CR-V into a mobile recording studio, incorporating its vintage sound system, so they could record whatever crazy ideas might strike them in the moment, often with whoever was around at the moment. Sometimes they’d even give the music test runs for random folks on the street.
Much of this is pretty weird -- oddball experiments and goofs. One interlude, “Laurie’s Machine,” is apparently just that, messages left on someone’s answering machine.
So who do we hear in this? Maybe the Spinners or Delfonics? Gamble and Huff’s classic Sound of Philadelphia productions for sure. Maybe some of the era’s jazz-soul crossovers, the Crusaders and George Benson?
More than any of those, this brings to mind the little experiments that knitted together Prince’s brilliant, still hard-to-get-a-handle-on “Sign 'o' the Times.” There’s even a track on this called “Group 1987," the year when the Prince album was released. Coincidence? Maybe, but.…
But then it also fits nicely in the current run of California oddballs making distinctively weird, and weirdly engaging, music — Flying Lotus and Ariel Pink among them. As with them, Silk Rhodes’ weirdness can coalesce into some wondrous, coherently creative music.
That’s exactly where it all leads when we get to the album’s closer, “The System.” It’s a real song. It still evokes some of the vintage acts, but has its own shape, its own character. It even has something to say, and points to promising directions for the future. Sounds like after poking around the past, Collins and Desree are ready to explore some new roads.