Clubland: Bulldog brings it with jazzy, neo-soul sound

Last modified: Thursday, September 04, 2014
Maybe you loved jazzy soul-pop when it enriched the airwaves in the '70s. Or maybe you found your sonic sanctuary in the neo-soul movement — ’90s artists who combined that '70s melodic sophistication with the rhythmic language of hip-hop.

Amherst quintet Bulldog is a new local band using that jazzy neo-soul fuel to explore their own territory. They’ll appear on a triple bill with Freddy & the Yetis and Young Tricksters at the Sierra Grille in Northampton tonight at 10 p.m. Bulldog plays first.

Earlier this year they put out a self-titled five-song EP. The grooves are mellow yet adventurous, with flashes of Little Dragon, late-’70s Steely Dan records, the production work of J Dilla, Radiohead, the Soulquarians collective and Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way” period, for starters.

Bulldog has only been around for one year, though it grew out of the popular funk/soul group Kids On a Hill, a 10-piece band that got its start at the University of Massachusetts and played its farewell show last spring at the Iron Horse.

Kids On a Hill members Nora Murphy (vocals/guitar), Craig Holland (bass) and Ben Silverman (drums) had all been living together for some time, listening to much of the same music and hearing each other writing and practicing their own songs in the house. They began casually playing together and trying out some covers (the first one being “Nakamarra” by Hiatus Kaiyote, a modern Australian neo-soul group).

When their main band called it a day, the close friends decided to officially start their own project.

“We were some of the only members that stayed in the Valley post-graduation, and we wanted to keep playing music with each other,” Silverman said. “We’d been building up our own repertoire of songs that hadn’t ever been quite right to play with Kids on a Hill. It was exciting to realize our songs.”

The threesome made for a solid rock-type trio, but their original material — influenced more by jazz, neo-soul, and hip-hop — needed additional instrumentation to create the right nuanced sound.

Enter keyboardist Christian Tremblay and saxophonist Alec Hutson, two other members of Kids On a Hill and longtime friends. “They joined Bulldog pretty seamlessly,” Silverman said.

And it’s that colorful five-piece lineup that made the new EP, which was recorded from late-2013 to early-2014 in basements, bedrooms, living rooms and the studio at Hampshire College.

The dreamy “Insanity Beach” ends the short record but it’s one of the most alluring tracks, with a pillowy bed of electric piano and gently skittering drums that hint at the main heartbeat but never land on it. Similarly, the lyrics circle around, never mentioning the title, ignoring any verse/chorus structure.

“My ironic boy / dig a little deep,” Murphy sings languidly, “You’ll find the water to rouse you from your sleep / you’ve got a ways to live / you can wait to die / emaciated arms / throw ’em to the sky.” Each time through the words, the vibe gets a little funkier, a little more emphatic, before dropping off into beautiful dreamland again.

“Glastown Parish” is another highlight, with the bass and drums playfully creating an illusion for the ears, as if two slightly different rhythms were on top of each other. It’s a groovy stumble, a woozy floating feeling reminiscent of the work of acclaimed hip-hop producer J Dilla.

“Caves” opens the EP on its most jazzy note, with shades of Steely Dan and laid-back ’70s fusion — though Silverman wrote the complex chords back when he was in middle school.

“We listen to a lot of jazz and we love to jam with each other,” he said of the Bulldog family. “While many of our songs are arranged and composed, we’ve become more comfortable playing progressions, jams, and beats that are more loosely arranged. There’s a way to still maintain a pop feel without being constricted to that traditional pop format.”

Bulldog mentions such influences as The Robert Glasper Experiment, Gizmo, St. Vincent, Jeff Buckley and others — Holland in particular listened to D’Angelo’s legendary “Voodoo” album “every day on repeat for about a year.”

Those musicians “dramatically influenced what we wanted to express in our music,” Silverman said, adding that local artists like Mammal Dap and Mal Devisa are also inspirational. “We love Mammal Dap’s fusion of hip-hop beats and virtuosic jazz sensibilities and Mal Devisa’s gorgeous layering of vocals and loops.”

Bulldog now has a full recording studio in their house and promise they have “lots of stuff written” -- excellent news, as their self-titled EP really whets the appetite. The band will have physical copies available at the show tonight, and the tracks are currently available for download at iTunes as well as http://bulldog.bandcamp.com/