On this collaborative album, Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundick teams with twin-brother jazz duo the Mattson 2. The trio swings between lucidity and lunacy and back again.
The first words we hear Chaz Bundick sing on his latest release are: “I think I’ve gone and lost my mind.” But they don’t so much set the tone for the record as reaffirm what’s been made obvious. We’re no less than three songs and 13 minutes in before we hear Bundick utter that introductory address—and all the psych-jazz jamming that preceded it already proved we’re dealing with a wandering mind that does not want to be found.
As Toro Y Moi, Bundick has always possessed the sort of voice that sounds like it could float off and dissolve into the ether at any moment. But his production has kept it contained. Whether it’s the hazy hip-hop beats of 2010’s Causers of This, the rubbery funk of 2011’s Underneath the Pine, or the space-age power pop of 2015’s What For?, Bundick prefers to do his tripping in controlled environments. Even his recent concert album—normally a forum where artists let loose—exhibited all the formality of a science-lab experiment. Last year’s Live From Trona should have been Toro Y Moi’s Pink Floyd: Live At Pompeii move, a performance recorded in the middle of the California desert for an audience of none. Instead, the isolated setting sun-baked the aqueous qualities of his music into a dry precision
But there was one great exception: The hands-down highlight of the Trona performance was a new song called “JBS” that saw Bundick backed by the Mattson 2, a twin-brother jazz duo he had met by chance in 2014. Framed by a beautiful fading sunset of a guitar riff, “JBS” initially unfurls like an early ’70s reverie from the Shuggie Otis playbook. But when Bundick’s sad-sack narrator says, “I think I’ll stay inside,” it’s an invitation for the trio to go further out, triggering an extended guitar odyssey that channels all the tension and anxiety underpinning Bundick’s plainspoken lyrical laments.
Where it represented a detour on Trona, “JBS” now grounds Bundick’s album-length collaboration with the Mattsons, recorded just before their desert dalliance. And the song’s opening rumination on psychosis proves highly symbolic of an album that swings between lucidity and lunacy and back again. After a minute of tranquil, Feels-esque ambiance, “Sonmoi” is violently overturned by Bundick’s intruding guitar solo, which sets the trio off on an acid-rock excursion. The track brings to mind Hendrix’s final frontiers, or Santana circa Caravanserai, but Bundick isn’t one to put on a shredding clinic—he plays a more reactive role to the Mattsons, tastefully layering his lines or unleashing percussive pricks to bolster their grooves.
In moments like these, Star Stuff provides a snapshot of players still getting to know each other, and in some cases, rushing to hash out ideas in their limited recording windows. The downtempo psych-soul strut “A Search” is embellished by Bundick’s wordless, one-man-Beach Boys harmonies, but when he starts humming over his phased-out guitar line, it’s like he’s laying down a guide vocal for as-yet unwritten lyrics. And on “Steve Pink,” the trio flirt with fusion, pitting a wah-wahed refrain against a stuttering rhythm—but the track manages to come off as overly busy yet too restrained at the same time.
Star Stuff’s best stuff follows the example set by “JBS,” when the trio approximate the sound of a radio dial in 1973 that’s shifting at random between AM pop stations and freeform FM frequencies. The title track is the album’s most focussed statement, with Bundick’s uncharacteristically dramatic vocal fending off string swirls over a bongo-powered backbeat. The instrumental “Cascade” syncs up fret-work contortions to a tropical funk thrust like a Brazilian answer to Yes. And the eight-minute epic “Don’t Blame Yourself” is effectively a late-album sequel to “JBS,” answering that song’s self-pity with self-help. “Everybody goes through it, too,” Bundick sings with sage-like calm, “Don’t just think it’s only for you/Upset over what has been done/Don’t you blame yourself.” To honor that therapeutic mission statement, the song’s celestial prog-jazz sway starts to fade in and out, as if submerging itself repeatedly in an isolation tank.
Of course, as “Don’t Blame Yourself” illustrates in its dying minutes, Chaz Bundick Meets the Mattson 2 wouldn’t be a proper improv side-project without at least one baptism by drum solo. But even in its most indulgent turns, Star Stuff serves its purpose: After making an overly disciplined live album for zero spectators, it’s refreshing to hear Bundick really jam like no one’s looking.