One of the first albums I ever reviewed on Divide and Conquer was Modern Music for Modern People by The Steve Hensby Band. I loved it, but wondered if ALL the albums I’d be reviewing would have that same level of invention, density and genre-hopping. I needn’t have worried, because Hensby is a truly unique musician and bandleader. His newest album It’s a Dry Heat Ayyye!!! is the band’s first full-length release since my 2020 review, with the exception of a single and a Christmas EP.
The band started in 2017, sporting folk, soul, funk and world music influences, later adding a horn section. Thankfully the horns are still prominent! I just saw Los Lobos performing live, and strange as it seems, there’s a lot of crossover between East Los Angeles and Perth, Australia. Yes, both bands have horns, but they also share the same wild, funky and soulful spirit, and Steve Hensby is by all accounts a gas to see live. The core of the band includes Hensby (guitar/vocals), Karl Florisson (bass), Greg Brenton (drums), Peter Evans (percussion) and Elysia Murphy (keys/vocals). The horn section features Marc Osborne (tenor saxophone/clarinet), Al McEvoy (baritone sax), Laura Halligan (trumpet) and Will Pethick (trombone). There’s a few guests I’ll mention when they appear. Recording and mixing took place at Villa Studios by Josh Dyson, with mastering by Brodie Stewart.
Hensby states that this is a concept album about “a post-apocalyptic world: the only place left on Earth with life is Perth, Western Australia that has formed its own eco system based around mining and partying.” I remember now that Hensby does like his stories! As such, “El Nino” opens the album at full throttle, with a Sweet “Ballroom Blitz” drumbeat and shouted vocals. “Make it rain! AAARRRRGHHH!” Enter the Los Lobos-style horn section, followed by the full band in funky soul mode. Hensby lays out the story in his lead vocals, but the main attraction here is the chorus chants of “El Nino!” which is impossible to hear without imagining a venue full of dancing revelers blocking your view of the band. Terrific trumpet solo by Laura Halligan, though all the horns are killing it throughout.
“Righteous St” borrows the melodic scheme of the old single “I’m Your Venus” led by fuzz organ and handclaps. Hensby takes the lead vocal but introduces radio-friendly harmony choruses that totally satisfy. There’s a hilarious moment where a split-second progressive rock riff is followed by… crickets. “Jamtown in Mukinbudin” ups the funk ante, and features the vocalist General Justice along with John Dyson on organ. Lots of Motown influence both here and on the previous track. Hensby takes a spoken word rant against racism in general and the overuse of the term ‘black on black violence’ in particular.
“Hairy Man In A Waxed World” is a fast, riff-heavy rock song that’s a distant cousin to the Hendrix hit “Fire.” I really like Hensby’s vocal here, taking centerstage as the whole band drops out for each verse. The choruses are high energy, before weirdly morphing into retro-’50s like “Little Shop of Horrors” or “Grease.”
“Alcohol and Caffeine” has a chorus I’m hearing as “Come on down / to Shantytown.” Those lyrics, the funk stylings and female lead vocals remind me a lot of the old hit “Funkytown.” Josh Dyson guests on keys along with Bendan Tompsett on spoken word. The voice and sound effects collage at the end is wild and a bit scary!
“Theme From South Specific” is a great title. The phasing lead vocals recall John Lennon while the guitar keeps up a “Shaft” funky rhythm. The horn section gets a nice long stretch to shine, like early Chicago at its best. Incredible ending where all the instruments are literally swallowed in a cloud of reverb. “Sailboat For Two” starts with wave laps and a single ukulele (shortly joined by saxophones) along with 1920’s-era female vocal stylings. I like my music WAY retro so this was a standout! Fans of Dan Hicks or the Bonzo Dog Band may agree.
“Mahogany Rum” has a hot beat along with the voices of “The Rojos del Municipal Club Choir” (Diego Alvarado, Enrique Irungaray and Ana Coronado). The background voices do a call-and-response with Hensby who performs a busy, constant and almost rapping lead vocal. Musically this is another Hensby Hyrbrid, moving from Latin to funk to pop without breaking a sweat. The title track “It’s A Dry Heat Ayyyye!!!” starts a bit more intimate, with acoustic guitar, vocal and horns. Musically it feels like a saloon piano tune in an old Western, while Hensby describes what just might be modern day Perth and not just the one at the end of his story. The horns have the feel of a Salvation Army Band, and the slightly tipsy “Pitch Slapped Community Choir” (Sophie Foster, Rick Webster, Greg Brendon and Elysia Murphy) take us home at last.
Though the story or concept here feels a bit undercooked compared to Hensby’s previous opera, all his musical elements are intact with maybe a bit more emphasis on the funk. Definitely make him part of your musical dashboard!
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