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Alive and Crooked: New music from the Crooked Vines

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The Crooked Vines packed their trombones, saxophones, keyboards, and other gear into the Hi-Tone on a weekday night not long ago, when Memphis was still making up its mind about summer and autumn. Hailing from New Orleans, Memphis was the first stop on their tour. The Vines played a tight set, high-energy and soul-inflected. And it gave me a chance to pick up the band's newest album, Alive, before its November 9th release.

The Crooked Vines’ sophomore effort plays like a summer road trip between the Bluff City and the Big Easy, flipping the radio dial between soul and dance stations. A bright brass section and smooth-until-they’re-gritty piano and organ licks drive the album. The horns are the hook, and vocalist Mikayla Braun reels the listener in with her smoky vocals and lyrics.

Alive conjures a mood of celebration out of life’s many minor tragedies and imperfections. It seems to say “I know more than I knew, and I know enough to enjoy what I can, while I can.” Braun returns to themes of growth spurred by change and loss, and the ways our flaws highlight our strengths. It’s a clever trick for a record packed with so many songs that inspire movement. There’s enough tension and drama in Braun’s subject matter to justify the minor chords. But in the end, whether it’s to forget or to celebrate, the songs seem to suggest that the closest thing to salvation on earth can be found on the dance floor.

Each of the album’s 11 songs are tight and nuanced, but “Better Off (For Loving You),” “Anything New,” and the title track are the essentials. The time change during the bridge of “Better Off (For Loving You)” turns the bouncy soul song into a plaintive ballad right out of 1960s TV Land. As the organ swells, Braun croons the lyrical coda, “Oh, wouldn’t it be grand holding your hand? Just like I should.” The quick and tasteful change highlights the group’s versatility, a flexibility and resourcefulness demonstrated throughout the record.

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I would wager that these New Orleans players have listened to their share of Memphis soul — and probably even have a few Booker T. & the MG’s and Staples Singers records in their collections. But Alive is more than just a remixed soul serenade. It’s a rich and multi-hued creation befitting the eclectic music legacy of the Big Easy. Sure, the placement of the groove — front and center — and the prominence of the horns call to mind funk comparisons, but prog-rock guitar riffs, pop melodies, and a hip-hop guest vocalist do their part to flesh out the sound, crafting something toe-tapping and soulful.

Alive is available on iTunes and at thecrookedvines.com.

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