Ultra Sonic Gas Can is a brilliant piece of work. Why? Tino Gross and the men and women at Funky D Studios hold the Detroit sound in the palm of their hands. The Detroit sound is formidable, but how amorphous is it, how multifaceted? The Motor City certainly has its jazz, blues, Gospel, soul, rock , doo-wop, rap, punk, techno and country heritage. It’s not much of a folk music town, you have to go to Boston for that.
In Detroit there is a cultural aura where one can imagine a Baptist preacher looking down from the pulpit at the music’s blue collar pageantry, giving it his tacit approval. This man of the cloth is permissive when it comes to compassion in the the great social struggles. But is about old time religion when the word of the Lord is about socioeconomic justice. The struggle between good and evil. The struggle of the common man.
At root there is a Southern connection in the Motor City that follows the route taken in the Great American Migration of the 20th century, from South to North, from injustice to justice, from poor to less poor. The music also follows this path. From the Delta to the factory. Now what if somebody in the here and now came alone and made the Detroit sound even more eclectic by adding to all of the above-named genres, plus some decisive elements of California surf, California slide, house music, hip hop, and even a trace circus music, the big top, the big time, and the big town, stepped on by an apocalyptic industrial free fall. Isn’t surf music a kind of a circus sound with the sun beaming down on the the waves to light up all the performers?
Amid that Motown morality tale, what if the music still stood taller than ever after the fall, as a sort of conscience statement for all that has taken place, like a preacher might do. What do you call this phenomenon? Try urban Gothic. Southern Gothic going North, from rural to more urbane. In Ultra Sonic Gas Can there is dark humor, secular existentialism, and a motive for social justice along with a pretty progressive brand of religiosity. Now consider Gas Can as an example of urban Gothic music, like Southern Gothic, but urban and more Northerly. The city is different, it is radioactive and funky.
The music of the Howling Diablos is on the same trajectory as the New Orleans sound, but the frigid cold of the Detroit winter, the big panoramic rust belt flavor, disintegrating housing, burned out storefronts, and abandoned skyscrapers all serve to give the Detroit sound a blizzard-like Northern polarity, except in the summer. Detroit feels like the South in the throes of July and August, with all the gritty humidity and almost unbearable, stifling heat. Most of the year a gray overcast rules Detroit’s weather. The people of Detroit climb inside of the music to turn these meteorological disparities into a great, smooth ride, with AC, super suspension, a super smooth transmission, even on a half rusted out old hoopty cruising the inner city streets, east and west, south of Eight Mile Road.
Ultra Sonic Gas Can captures all of this with 13 tracks that define the modern Detroit sound. It may be about struggle, but it’s also about a great rewards. If it was light and airy, the sound would be from somewhere else. Tino Gross, the Howling Diablos band leader, guitarist, lead singer, producer and either author or co-writer of each song on the album as gone all the way here. Funky D Studios seems to have coalesced as the successor to Motown and is the new gold standard for the Detroit sound. The “people talent” on board is like an artist colony.
Before there was Motown Records, there was Fortune Records, its precursor. That was in the days of old school R&B, doo-wop, Detroit blues, rock-a-billy and more. At the center of it all was Devora Brown. The second track onUltra Sonic Gas Can is devoted to her. It starts with some novel guitar distortion punctuated by some tight wha wha, and driving harmonica. Then the lyric, I was so alone, didn’t know which way to go, spent the whole day by the pay phone, I never heard nobody except myself. Self reflective in a way that the Detroit street was about to have a voice. That is followed by the chorus, Devora, Devora Brown, she’s the one makes the deal go down, Devora Devora Brown, she pushing that Detroit sound…I never heard nobody, except my self. Then reference is drawn to never having to go back to the Detroit House of Corrections, or DeHoCo, as it was commonly called during the Fortune era. Is this not a statement about musical emancipation?
It was late one night, I was so uptight, I didn’t know wrong from right, everywhere I looked the sky was on fire, those needles on the record, and needles in my arm, somebody went and pulled the fire alarm, the bums in the street wanna know why… Fortune was located along Third Avenue in the Cass Corridor, known for its junkies, whores and derelicts. Out of this forlorn footprint was born the Detroit Sound. Track seven, “Detroit On My Mind,” takes the storyline further. In a funky blues rock fashion, it suddenly occurs to this listener that Funky D Records is the new Motown, and that’s quite a statement.
The proof of that is encapsulated in track 12, “Sold Out,” an exquisite rap. Here among the foreclosures and mean streets, it seems apparent that Detroit is like a battlefield. Spoken word. Sold us out, no doubt, livin’ on the front lines, hah, it’s like a war zone out here, man we just the soldiers. And then the rap. Times got tough in the land of plenty… hookin’ up cheap meat, tryin’ to make ends meet, living in your car, startin’ to [draw the] heat, East side to West side where the Mustangs roam it’s foreclosed homes, you know they sold us out, no doubt. With these images, the only place to go is back to Marvin Gaye’s immortal words, makes ya’ wanna holler, makes ya’ wanna shout. This becomes the refrain. A choice like this, no accident, joins this effort to the very best that Motown Records produced when it was thriving and still in Detroit. Selling these ideas, persuasively, calls for a rap, and Tino Gross, and a rap artist who goes by the name of Hush get it done. Detroit’s a strong rap town, and this is a strong rap tune.
That sound and sentiment feeds directly into track five, “House Party,” where it’s house music and party time, brilliantly constructed. That along with some driving funky rock seems to harken back to Hastings Street in the Black Bottom section that once stood as a testament to black music in the 1940s and ’50s. It is gone but not forgotten today, nor are the house parties forgotten that helped the locals make ends meet. John Lee Hooker was part of this scene. The dance music turntables are well oiled and screeching here. There are strong raging Gospel elements as well, thanks to the incredible backup singers, which is also pervasive throughout the entire record. “Hook-Up,” track three, hooks into this grove as well, but in more of an R&B, almost comic way. It is the hook-up that puts an end to misery, after all.
“Funky Parade” is all about New Orleans. Here Louisiana is the promised land. Professor Longhair, Fats—it’s all there. Johnny Evan’s R&B-style sax rules here. Take me down to New Orleans to the parade, I gotta let my mind unwind in the shade. There are also a couple of country-based tunes, too, with that poignancy that only a pedal steel guitar can produce. One is a real heart breaker. If “You Make Me Good” is sweet, moving and sentimental, with a note of spirituality to it (and a lot like the past 15 years of Bob Dylan’s current muse), then “Too Broke To Break Up” is pure hilarity and so true when you are at the bottom. It’s hard to move into the post matrimonial state and go “splitsville” when you just plain don’t have the cash to make it a clean break. Hello Heartbreak, I guess it’s just me and you, I got the blues ’cause I just got the news, my baby said that we are through, now wait a minute darlin’, ain’t no need for you to cry, we ain’t got no money, we’re kinda broke, can’t afford to say good bye. This is reality for a lot of people
My favorite songs on the CD ironically travel to the West Coast in more than just spirit. One in particular, “Blues King,” speaks of a supreme blues man who once reigned over East LA in the glory days, in the era that also witnessed Diz and Bird at their creative height under the bright lights of Hollywood. It’s not about Walt Disney, here. It’s a then and now story, too. These days this king of the blues is elderly, has diabetes, and has a grandson who is into rap. One spectacular element of the song is its brilliantly executed California-style slide guitar–it has to be a Les Paul. It is a driving and horn-like force just like it ought to be. And there is “Surfin’ In Detroit,” what is to Detroit what the song about surfin’ in Rockaway was to the Ramones. It features lots of classic surf guitar, but somehow this morphs into something akin to circus music. This song is satire. Now, on to hard driving rock. That would be track 11, “Wiskey River, which is also a hangin’ judge song where the protagonist does not want to go back to the penitentiary, or even more likely, wants to avoid to being hung from an apple tree. Here a hard-driving Duane Eddy-like style guitar steps right out front.
That just leaves the album’s signature songs, track one, “Mr. Right Now,” and the final track , “After Party Re-Mix” of the same basic tune. Both tunes share the same lyric line. I may not be Mr. Right, right, but I’m, Mr Right Now, right now. First time through it is done as a rap tune with a deep R&B shadow voice, and the track 13 is another take on rap, but more sinister. No romantic ballad is this. What ya’ say you and me and that body head back to the crib for and after party that’s right. Outrageous, funny, bold and sexist, what more can be said. As I previously stated, Super Sonic Gas Can is a brilliant piece of work. It has to be owned from coast to coast.
The Production and Personnel
Back to the innovative cross-genre nature of the album. It’s all there, and integrated with the taste of a musical sheriff that has come to town to make the town safe for things to come. It is without precedent. All the tools are used to create a masterwork and, Tino Gross has done the City of Detroit proper. The spine of the recording is the Gospel-style collection of amazing backup singers. They are Kymberli Wright, Eliza Neals, Carley Hartwell, Valerie Taylor, Chris McCall, Pat Baron, Uncle Kracker and Hush.
The core of the Howling Diablos are Tino Gross on vocals and guitar, Erik Gustafson on guitar, Mo Hollis on bass, Johnny “Bee” Badanjek on drums and tambourine, Johnny Evans on sax, flute and harp, and Jimmie Bones on Keyboards. Additional musicians include Jim McCarty on guitar, Kenny Robinson on trumpet, Jim Morris on pedal steel, Mike Smith on guitar, Gary Indiana on guitar, Tim Diaz on guitar and B-3 organ, and Shannon Boon on drums.
All tunes were produced at Detroit’s own Funky D Records by Tino Gross, and engineered by Nigel Burnside. The assistant engineer was Dave Linden. Additional studios include Mike E. Clark’s Fun House, Steve King’s 54 Sound Studios, and the Tim Diaz’ Soupcan Studio. Mastering was done by Jeffrey Reed at Tap Root in Oxford, Mississippi. The superb artwork and cover design was provided by Bette Chapelle. Ultra Sonic Gas Can was recorded in 2011.
1. “Mr. Right Now” (M. Gross/Zwara) 3:05
2. “Devora Brown (ooh mow mow)” (M. Gross) 3:23
3. “Hook Up” (M. Gross) 3:22
4. “Blues King” (M. Gross) 4:20
5. “House Party (M.Gross/Clark) 3:30
6. “You Make Me Good” (Based on a poem by C. Mayo) 3:36
7. “Detroit On My Mind” (featuring Uncle Kraker and the Detroit Wheels) (M. Gross/Shafer) 3:33
8. “Too Broke To Break Up” (M. Gross) 3:23
9. “Surfin’ In Detroit” (M. Gross) 3:46
10. “Funky Parade” (M. Gross) 3:41
11. “Whiskey River” (M. Gross) 3:59
12. “Sold Out” (featuring Hush) (Gross/Carlisle) 4:26
13. “After-Party Remix” (featuring Robert Bateman) (M. Gross) 3:40
This review is the second in a three-part series of all Funky D material that has already included Eliza Neals’ album called Messin’ With A Fool. The final CD for consideration is Hart County by the Horse Cave Trio, which will be posted on theblogis.wordpress.com in the very near future.
I first met band leader and producer Tino Gross in the early to mid 1990s sitting at a table at the old Sully’s music hall, at the time truly Detroit’s home of the blues. It was located in Dearborn, Michigan, where the Mustangs roam. The Howling Diablos was already an established cross-genre star band out of Detroit with a following well past the city limits.
This is a band that steadily just keeps on keepin’ on with constant growth and a superlative record of achievement. The Howling Diablos has gone on to achieve a world-class place in American music with the last several string of monster albums. Tino has always been most kind to me and a very approachable cat. His Funky D Records is jointly operated by Gross and his partner, Linda Lexy.
I wish to thank Tino, Linda and all the folks at Funky D for making it possible for me to review this extraordinary album. As I said twice in the review, I believe that Funky D Records in its current form is the logical successor to Detroit’s legendary Motown Records of 50 years ago. It is been a while since we have had something quite like this in the Motor City.
— George Seedorff, copyright 2012
Detroit, Michigan, USA
George Seedorff is Editor-in-chief at "The Blog Is" (theblogis.wordpress.com), an Arts, Entertainment & Music Review Blog.