Graded on a Curve:
El Michels Affair,
Adult Themes

Many know the El Michels Affair through a pair of Wu-Tang Clan-inspired albums, but with a new LP arriving on May 8 that’s about to change. Formed and directed by composer and multi-instrumentalist Leon Michels, the group’s specialty is “cinematic soul,” with the effectiveness of their sound finding Michels in high demand as both a producer and player. Adult Themes, the Affair’s fourth full-length since debuting in 2005, documents considerable growth alongside the soulfulness that’s integral to Michels’ style. It’s available on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through the label cofounded by the band’s leader, Big Crown Records.

Prior to forming the El Michels Affair, its namesake played in The Mighty Imperials, who’ve been described as the house band for Soul Fire Records, a long defunct label that emerged from the ashes of the Desco imprint, with the other noted byproduct of Desco’s demise being the neo-soul and classic funk enterprise that gifted the world with Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Charles Bradley, and much more, namely Daptone.

The Mighty Imperials only full-length, Thunder Chicken, was first released on CD by Desco in 2001 and then given a vinyl press on Daptone three years later. The sound is M.G.’s and early Meters instrumental action leaning into hard funk a la James Brown and the J.B.’s, especially on the tracks featuring vocalist Joseph Henry.

Today, as R&B, soul, and funk in the old-school mode has become increasingly commonplace, Thunder Chicken might seem like not such a big deal, but at the time of the record’s release this prevalence wasn’t the case. Listening now, it retains the sweet kick that’s felt when everything falls right into place, but with the El Michels Affair and the release of Sounding Out the City in 2005, Michels was already moving forward, retaining the sheer musicality while tapping into broader sonic possibilities.

The cinematic soul tag made sense as in 2009 El Michels released the 12-inch hat-tip to one of the originators of soul-deep film scoring, “Walk on By (A Tribute to Isaac Hayes),” with Enter the 37th Chamber, the first of two albums offering reinterpretations of selections by arguably the most film-centric of hip-hop acts, hitting stores the same year.

While it took until 2017 for Return to the 37th Chamber to surface (sans disappointment), it wasn’t due to Michels sitting back and relaxing. He was in fact working extensively with other artists in addition to starting Big Crown with Danny Akalepse (after the dissolution of Michels’ prior label Truth & Soul, a partnership with Jeff Silverman).

Made up entirely of original compositions, Adult Themes is El Michels’ long-belated follow-up to Sounding Out the City, though it’s not like he’s been gradually stockpiling an album’s worth of tracks for 15 years; rather, it sprang from the short interludes he’d been cooking up more recently for use by other artists (including Jay Z and Beyoncé), stuff Michels felt was so good he couldn’t resist expanding upon it himself with a cast of El Michels vets including Nick Movshon, Homer Steinweiss, Michael Leonhart, and Tommy TNT Brenneck, plus newcomer Paul Spring, who plays guitar in Big Crown act Holy Hive.

Now, the descriptor of cinematic soul has in many ways been a reference to the grand instrumental sweep of the El Michels sound, but with Adult Themes the leader has remarked on how the album connects as the soundtrack to an imaginary film. After listening, indeed before the first spin had ended, his observation was confirmed as right on the money.

This is partly because first track “Enfant,” which showcases the wordless vocal ethereality of Shannon Wise, she of another Big Crown signee, The Shacks, works both as opening credits music (placing this imaginary film in an era no later than the early ’70s) and, as her voice immediately carries over into “Adult Theme No. 1,” as a melodic callback in a passage that, if short, is highly effective in its dreamlike atmosphere.

With a brief exception late in the LP, Wise isn’t heard from again, but the surreal mood of “Adult Themes No. 1” (there are three more instrumentally varied themes numbered and spread across the album) does extend into “Kill the Lights” as the rhythm hits slow but hard and a massive horn arrangement offers both sleepy drift via flutes and David Shire-like deep woodwind tension, a motif that also figures in the next piece, the even more rhythmically driving “Villa.”

The numeric series of cuts and the descriptive titles of “Villa” and “A Swift Nap” suggest a level of conceptual preparation that Michels undercuts in Adult Themes’ promotional text, where he mentions how the imaginary film score impression came to him later. Instead, he cites David Axelrod and Moondog as influences, though the namechecking of Francois de Roubaix does reinforce how film scores were at least on his mind even if he wasn’t necessarily conjuring a faux example himself.

“Life of Pablo” brings the record one of its most slamming beats as vibraphone and horns deepen a jazzy sensibility (maybe more Schifrin than Grusin) while the sound of Michels’ son crying at the start lends a personal touch while simultaneously heightening the cinematic. “Rubix,” with its abrupt ending, enhances the soundtrack air even more, though the punch of the drumming and the non-cheese verve of the strings and horns distinguish Michels’ achievement from the norms of the associated genre of library music.

That’s not to infer that lovers of the library won’t find much to enjoy, it’s just that the plucked and bowed strings in “A Swift Nap,” both traditionally beautiful and rhythmically unusual, are distinct from the anonymity of so much library stuff. To elaborate, the threads of fuzz guitar and the largeness of the horns in “Hipps” recall the man’s love of Isaac Hayes as the wicked beat drives home that it’s all the work of Leon Michels.

The horn lines and vocals in “Munecas” provide an appealing circularity, though it’s the contemplative electric piano foundation of “Adult Themes No. 4” that gives Adult Themes a sense of finality; while wholly satisfying in the context of the record, it can also instill a thirst for more, largely because the expert playing is blended so seamlessly with the deft production. Listening, it’s easy to grasp why Leon Michels’ artistry is sought by so many.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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