It's been a while since a local release has arrived with as much baggage as The Suffers' debut LP, conveniently titled The Suffers. After selling out Fitzgerald's at last January's Make Some Room EP-release party; backing almost every Houston rap star you ever heard of before a massive crowd at Free Press Summer Fest 2015; and killing three songs on The Daily Show on Tuesday, it's safe to say The Suffers have arrived.
So expectations are high for The Suffers, which arrives Friday, some four-plus after The Suffers’ formation. Already much has been written (some of it here, true) about how the ten-piece group represents a microcosm of Houston itself, a supposed “melting pot” of sounds that could have only come from and combined in the Bayou City. All of that may be true, but it’s equally true for a lot of other bands here, too. The only question that really matters today is “is this record any good?”
The short answer is "of course it is." The grind of every gig and every rehearsal in those four-plus years is etched into The Suffers’ ten songs. Opening with a flourish of horns that will transport older listeners to the days of wide lapels and bell-bottom trousers, The Suffers may be retro, but without even the slightest trace of hipster irony. Just because the band members are in their twenties and thirties doesn’t mean the sound they make has to be some sort of affectation. The hours upon hours they must have spent listening to all those Al Green, Gladys Knight, Staples Singers, and Earth, Wind & Fire albums in their parents’ collections (RIP Maurice White) have soaked into their music organically, because that’s the way The Suffers play these songs here.
Therefore, The Suffers is a very confident, relaxed and inviting album. It’s also quite intimate; one of the most surprising things about it is how domesticated it is. Of the ten songs, perhaps only “Gwan” — which is about a slightly different kind of intimacy — sounds designed to burn up the dance floor. It succeeds admirably, but the balance of the album leans heavily toward couples’ dances and slow jams. Lead singer Kam Franklin makes an ideal hostess, ensuring her guests (i.e., listeners) are as comfortable as possible. She offers to cook and make micheladas (“Make Some Room”); pleads “would you please be my shelter?” (“Better”); and really lays it all on the line on seven-minute closer “Giver,” promising, “let me take away the pain.” Really, she has that same effect on the entire album.
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Franklin may not get enough credit for the subtleties her voice is capable of, but only because her vocal might is such that she has no trouble keeping attention focused squarely on her; the heated crescendos of “Midtown” or “Gwan” are proof enough of that. But the nine instrumentalists in The Suffers are up to the challenge thrown down by their dynamic front woman. However much Franklin may dominate every bar where her mouth is open, the album makes plenty of room for them, too. Just a few highlights include the magnificent horn charts on “Make Some Room,” “Midtown” and “Real Good Day”; the rhythmic dynamo of bassist Adam Castaneda, drummer Nick Zamora and percussionist Chapy Luna on the relentless “Gwan”; Cory Wilson’s freewheeling sax solo on “Dutch”; keyboardist Pat Kelly’s tidal organ swells throughout; and the soft interplay between the guitars, horns and organ on “Giver,” which closes out the album with the lights down, perhaps a fire in the fireplace and two glasses of cognac on the night table. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, too.
Releasing an album nowadays is almost optional for bands destined to make their living on the road like The Suffers are about to do. They’re calling cards to pass out to booking agents as much as anything else. Yet The Suffers would not exist if a few dozen of the band’s most open-hearted and/or deep-pocketed fans hadn’t stepped up and paid for it via Kickstarter. That’s the reality of the music business these days, but also a testament to how much those fans believe in this band.
After they’ve come this far, The Suffers aren’t about to disappoint those fans now. Nor will they disappoint all the new fans they’re about to make on the upcoming tour that will keep them away from Texas until late April. Even a band as beloved in their hometown as this one may not have a lot of other opportunities to break through to that next level. The Suffers are well aware of that, so they make damn sure The Suffers makes this one count.
The Suffers will be available on Friday. The band's two album-release shows this Saturday and Sunday at the Continental Club are sold out. Purchase of a CD or LP at Cactus Music is good for a wristband that admits the bearer into The Suffers' in-store performance at 1 p.m. Saturday. Quantities are limited.