The second track on Corner Store is called “Visceral,” and that about says it all. The insanely good debut record by bassist Kris Funn and his titular band has plenty of cerebral stuff happening—just try keeping count of Funn and drummer Quincy Phillips’ accents on “Arithmetricks,” for example. But primarily, this is head music in the sense of bobbing, not calculating.
As for the ingredients, they’re listed in the opening “Welcome” by spoken-word performance artist Paige Hernandez (Funn’s wife). “The corner of bebop and hip-hop, hard rock and hard knocks; where the blues is the visceral response to everything, and a boombox is the soundtrack to a city block.” They appear throughout in various combinations that defy labels. The aforementioned “Visceral” is a three-piece groove: Funn, Phillips, and guitarist John Lee (Funn’s primary foil on Corner Store). One wouldn’t call it jazz-rock, jazz-funk, or funk-rock… yet it has the blistering attack of guitar rock, the rolling thump of funk, and unmistakable jazz language in the solos by Funn and Lee—not to mention a swing foundation.
They also sometimes defy their titles. Seeing the name “Boombox”—and reading Funn’s liner-note description of its inspiration, the DJ who lived up the street from him as a kid—one might naturally expect the pounding rhythms of early hip-hop, and perhaps the musique concrete of a Bomb Squad production. Instead, it’s a singsong vamp, Lee and alto saxophonist Tim Green (who does extraordinary bop-based solo work on the tune) leading against a three-note phrase from Funn and a steady snare-and-cymbal thrust from John Lamkin (who alternates with Phillips on the drums). The bridge is a wash of nostalgia—“Boombox” doesn’t document the object itself, but rather Funn’s childhood response to it.
Therein lies the key. Corner Store is ultimately Funn’s musical autobiography, from warm meditations on his older brother (“Gemini”) and wife (“PIF”), to evocation of his longtime U Street residency with The Young Lions (“Thursday Night Prayer Meeting,” gospel-ridden and played by the band itself—Funn, Phillips, and pianist Allyn Johnson). It’s also the key to the album’s lack of cerebral posturing: The bassist, who wrote every tune on the record (with one co-authorship), unearths his life not through a series of aural home movies, but through the lens of his own emotions.
Of course, this is most true on abstractions like “Mind Control,” with Green and especially pianist Janelle Gill playing lines both ominous and wounded, and the throbbing “Wish,” perhaps the album’s best tune. Following a full minute breast-beating solo from Funn, Lee’s guitar shifts from ethereal comps to bluesy tears to hard-rock shredding, then back to ether. There’s no one image or narrative to peg it to, but the sense of dreamy regret comes in loud and clear. That’s perhaps the most fundamental of Funn’s achievements with Corner Store: reminding us that ideas themselves can be as visceral as anything tangible.