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It’s always odd to read a review in a fanzine that slaps a band with the “D.C. sound” tag. What a misnomer. The D.C. “sound” is as variegated now as it ever was. For which we have to give some props to the Sorts. For five years now, the sometimes-trio, now-sort-of-quintet has been subtlely steering D.C.’s indie-rock music mess away from post-punk agitpop toward a more instrumentally focused and (dare I say?) musically proficient aesthetic.
Is it jazz? Is it funk? Who knows? The Sorts tread the territory between badass, Meters-influenced funk and plain-old-ass, shitty-high-school-band funk with such aplomb that there’s no question they’ve safely got their goods on the badass side. And that’s no mean feat when the band’s upcoming full-length record includes a Kool and the Gang cover. Said record, Contemporary Music (on Slowdime Records, the band’s erstwhile home), will hit stores in late November, though the band is scraping off the rust by playing a local date or two before the album’s release and a European tour in late fall.
Leading a pack of similarly minded D.C. bands, such as the Boom (with which Sorts guitarist-vocalist Josh LaRue sits in, on the trombone) and Sea Tiger (masterminded by LaRue and Sorts bassist Stuart Fletcher with help from various members of the D.C. funk-jazz sect), the Sorts have managed to remain a distinct entity despite the overlapping-band-member tomfoolery. Not that sharp distinctions have really crossed their minds, though.
“If things overlap and people switch in and out, it’s hard to identify a certain group of people with a sound,” LaRue concedes. “But it keeps things interesting for the people in those bands.” The Sorts play music clearly and unapologetically for themselves—record sales be damned.
But then, a little boost in record sales might not be so bad. “We don’t sell a lot of records,” LaRue admits. “But we sell enough to know that we can do it and break even or make a little bit of money. It’d be great if we could make more money and make a living off the band.” As it stands, all the Sorts have full-time jobs, “but in the back of my mind,” LaRue adds, “it’s always been a goal to live off music.”
If LaRue sounds a tad sheepish when relating that truism, who can blame him? Sprung from the archly anti-materialistic D.C. punk-rock community, he and his bandmates (also including drummer Chris Farrall, saxophonist Carlo Cennamo, and electric pianist Vin Novara) have all graduated to the Sorts from a laundry list of early-’90s punk stalwarts like Hoover, Rain Like the Sound of Trains, Crownhate Ruin, and the 1.6 Band. With CVs like theirs, it’s somewhat surprising to learn the genre that eventually brought the Sorts together: hiphop. “When Chris and I first started playing together, before we were playing with Stuart or had a name or anything, both of us really liked hiphop music a lot,” LaRue recalls. “We both started with rock music and then went through hardcore….But in hiphop, we started hearing jazz samples and soul. That’s really how I started getting into that. I think it was the same for him.”
Aside from breathing new life into the fellas’ sails, the melange of jazz, funk, and soul sounds radically changed the dynamic of the perceived D.C. “sound.” LaRue and Fletcher’s other project, Sea Tiger (which recently released a full-length, Teenage Bandit, on Troubleman Unlimited Records), has served as another outlet for them to delve into the murky world of garage-funk, although it takes a back seat to the Sorts. “Sea Tiger has always been a very infrequent thing,” LaRue says. “We concentrate hard on recording or playing shows when that’s what we’re doing, but it’s really on the shelf half the time.” With the Sorts, they’re pretty much always rehearsing or working on new material.
The recent arrivals of Cennamo and Novara to the Sorts’ fold have opened new portals for the onetime trio. Originally following more standard songwriting templates, LaRue and his bandmates have been liberated by the addition of Cennamo’s sax and Novara’s tasteful piano work. “We used to be much more deliberate and be much more conscious of everything and analyzing everything,” LaRue says. “Now, just as everyone’s gotten better at their instrument and more comfortable playing together, it’s easier for us to make stuff freer and more open. There are more improvised parts, and the arrangements leave more space for things to happen. It’s made things more interesting for us. Me and Chris and Stuart, the original three, don’t want it to get boring.”
The Sorts play this Friday, Oct. 8, at the Black Cat with the Dismemberment Plan and Karate.
The Dismemberment Plan has emerged from its major-label imbroglio (“They May Have to Amputate,” 1/29) with pride intact and a fine record to boot. Emergency and I, once slated to be an Interscope release, will be in stores Oct. 25 and will bear the DeSoto imprint….Cry Baby Cry (nee the Blisters) should have an EP out sometime this month. They’re also playing Friday at the Wilson Center (at 15th and Irving Streets NW) with the Scam, Gods Hate Kansas, Guyana Punchline, and the Sissies.—John Davis