When Kalmia Traver (vocals/saxophone) and Alex Toth (vocals/trumpet) founded Rubblebucket eleven years ago, they completely re-wrote the music playbook. They did everything from mixing funk, jazz, and pop to putting the marching band on the concert stage. During their time together, they forged life-long relationships with band mates Adam Dotson (trombone/backing vocals/flute/keyboards) and Ian Hersey (guitar/backing vocals) and between themselves. Their fifth full-length album, Sun Machine, as such, is more than just another record. It is a brief and open account of the pairs’ and the bands’ past five years. This includes Traver’s diagnosis and recovery from ovarian cancer (which she brilliantly covered on her solo debut album as Kalbells), Toth’s three-year battle with alcoholism, and the dissolution of their personal relationship. The two, however, remain close friends and collaborators, and it is evidenced throughout this terrific little album.
Sun Machine is not a tear-jerker nor meant for listeners to pity or feel remorse for Traver and Toth. On the contrary, they find jubilation in the midst of heartbreak and personal struggle. They find healing and therapy within their songs. Opener “What Life Is” immediately reveals Traver and Toth’s mindset, as they churn out a cool, psychedelic-funk tune that slowly develops into one trippy escapade. Traver’s vocals are intoxicating and seductive, but she’s not selling anything nor singing sweet-nothings to a lover. Instead, her voice reflects the hazy minds of millions of people who try to survive the concrete jungle of New York and find happiness. Who try to stay human in the cut-throat world of Wall Street and Broadway and to be heard above the tens of thousands of musicians.
“Sometimes life in New York is tough when you can’t find love
To keep your human heart through it all makes you a special person.
Wish there was space to go, nobody has to know.
Windows are nice that way, i will not jump today.”
“Party Like Your Heart Hurts” and “Fruity” further accentuate the band’s emphasis on turning the page and celebrating a new day. The former is an upbeat, disco-jazz tune that features Rubblebucket’s trademark, raucous horn arrangements. Traver’s urgent vocals encourage us to just live in the face of potential personal devastation. The latter sees the band expand to new grounds, bringing their jazz backgrounds to the electronic stage. Shimmering synths, tingling guitar riffs, and groovy rhythms meet the low bellow of sax, trumpet, and trombone on “Fruity”. Together, they form an intimate dance tune. Traver’s vocals are deft and soft, as she recounts the multiple ways that people can fall in love even when they’re following separate paths. Some of her lyrics are poetic and imaginative, sounding like she’s laying in a meadow and creating a story out of the clouds that float above.
“I promised that we’d swim in rivers
On mountains with nobody on them.
I gazed at your face for too long until my own was gone.
I promised that we’d ride the golden blanket to heaven.
I’m sorry, Fruity, I must just find the Earth again.”
Staying within the electro-pop sphere, Rubblebucket channel Grimes and Operators on the ravishing “Formless and New”. Commencing with a melodic and breathtaking approach, the song quickly turns into a vibrant, dance-inducing affair of scintillating synths and pulsating beats and horns. Unlike the other songs on the album, Traver opens up about the pain that still lingers inside her and how it has changed her.
Toth offers his own account on “Sunlit Sparks (I Won’t Break You)”, which is a sensual and intimate horn-infused, electro-soul-pop number. He, however, delivers words of an unbreakable relationship even though the two people have opted to take different plans.
“I’ll take the long way home, and I hope to see you there.
It’s like an awkward dance in the right mood light
In the wrong holding pattern.
Just come and hold my hand even if you don’t believe me.”
Although Rubblebucket effortlessly cover new ground, they are still at their best when they merge multiple genres into their marching band approach. The sultry cool “Annihilation Song” combines pop, funk, jazz, and soul into an intoxicating concoction. Traver, meanwhile, serves up ’60s girl group-style smooth vocals while her band mates stoke the fiery beats beneath. Despite the song’s title, it’s one that encourages one to get up and persevere. To not allow even a life-threatening disease and the painful treatments to keep one down. The equally groovy and immediate “Inner Cry” further calls on us to express ourselves. To not be afraid to scream and be heard.
Seventies disco meets jazz and funk on the hazy and memorable “Donna”. It’s a departure from the other tracks on the album, as the band’s focus turns to a woman who they constantly think and dream about. Similarly, “Lemonade” is enshrouded in memory. The song is a brilliant mélange of jazz, funk, R&B, art-pop, and electro-pop with a splash of Vaudeville. However, Traver’s emotional vocals and Toth’s lyrics, which are written from Traver’s point of view, shine the brightest. She poetically sings about a love affair that has ended, comparing it to a submarine and a “big blue whale that’s tainted by the sonar”. Despite the pain, they easily say goodbye and share a glass of everyone’s favorite summer drink.
Unsurprisingly, the album comes to a joyous end with “Habit Creature”, which is a poppy, fun, and exhilarating interpretation of ’80s synth-pop. It’s unquestionably meant to get people up and dancing and to celebrate who they are. To acknowledge that we as humans seek, desire, and ensure pleasure, no matter the ways in which we obtain it. By finding pleasure, we find happiness, and our healing accelerates. For Kalmia Traver and Alex Toth, their healing started long ago and they’ve turned the page on new chapters in their lives. They’ve done this in the only way they know how – through music that enlivens the soul and gets the blood pumping. Music that reminds us that life is still full of surprises and jubilant times to come.
Catch the band on tour this autumn. They have a couple of shows in September, but their cross-country tour begins in October. Dates and information are available here.
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