Eleven years ago, The Stepkids unveiled their self-titled debut album, a head-spinning boogie wonderland, the sort of improbable genre hybrid from a then-unknown band—a still unknown band, really—that the blog era had a tendency to throw up. It was evidently retro, looking to Sly and The Family Stone and Parliament-Funkadelic for inspiration. If the band had a budget, they might have made something slick and lush in the vein of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak’s recent voyage into soulful nostalgia, Silk Sonic. Instead, they garnished their sound with layers of experimental weirdness that didn’t make it obvious to place in the 1970s. It was easy to see why Stones Throw, a label that loves to test traditional boundaries, snapped them up.
The Stepkids comprised of guitarist Jeff Gitelman, bass player Dan Edinberg, and drummer Tim Walsh. Gitelman and Edinberg had actually met a decade-and-a-half previous to the release of the album, connecting over a mutual love of jazz music before taking very different musical paths. Edinberg played in reggae rock band ZOX. Gitelman, born in Soviet-era Moldova before moving to the U.S. as a child, scored presumably fun jobs as a session/touring guitarist for the likes of Lauryn Hill, Jaheim, 50 Cent, Bobby Brown, and Alicia Keys. The duo reconnected creatively in early 2009, with Walsh, a friend of Gitelman, completing the line-up.
“For us, we were on a real high musically when we were working on it,” Gitelman told me in 2011, speaking about the band’s then-freshly released first album. “Once we recorded ‘Brain Ninja’ we thought that we had a totally new sound and that made us write a new album right away because we were so ridiculously inspired. We were sharing a lot of personal songs. We would all help each other write, and when we all got in the same room to write it actually felt like the next natural step. It wasn’t a big hurdle to get over.”
I interviewed the band for The Deli, a very cool independent print music magazine freely distributed around New York that probably doesn’t get the credit it deserves for capturing the cloudburst of new bands roaming the city at the time, hoping to be another The National (though The Stepkids actually repped Connecticut). This was the early days of me trying to write about music professionally and I was pretty excited to do a piece on a band I was truly digging—my story even ended up on the cover. My assessment of The Stepkids wasn’t universally recognized, though. In a review for Pitchfork (6.5), Hari Ashurst criticized their “absence of personality,” picking up on the band’s collaborative nature as “the project’s biggest shortcoming.”
I get where Ashurst is coming from here. But rather than seeing their collective process as homogenous (and it’s telling that Ashurst does not refer to any individual member by name in the review) I find it blends beautifully. Gitelman was correct when he told me that “Brain Ninja” was a new sound. The throwback influences were obvious, yet the song didn’t resemble anything else on the market before or since. There’s the wail of wah-wah guitars, the interconnecting vocal harmonies, the grubby production achieved by the band recording onto analog tape. The Stepkids is an album where the music always feels slightly distant, like colours and shapes appearing in front of your eyes as lie on your back that you can’t quite reach out and touch.
The harmonies are key to the record’s distinctive nature. “We were very inspired by singers like David Bowie who have many different characters that they do,” Edinberg told me. “For every single vocal part we weren’t thinking like ‘yes, we kind of want it to sound like this or a little more like this.’ We wanted to be able to sound like different types of singers.”
To bring it back to “Brain Ninja,” see how the use of a falsetto meshes with a deeper, funkier vocal style, with, at one point, a Bootsy Collins impression (“You’re shucking and jiving me, baby”) thrown in for good measure. You wouldn’t call “Brain Ninja” a pop tune, but the hook has always stayed with me. The lyric “Sneaking your way to the heart,” is sung with a bit of Bela Lugosi swagger before being punctuated with the ninjato sword swoop of “Brain ninja!”
There’s a touch of Jimi Hendrix balladry to “Legend In My Own Mind,” the little guitar licks working off the prominent bassline and pretty “woo woo” backing vocals. “Wonderfox,” meanwhile, takes some super fly Curtis Mayfield blaxploitation grooves and adds odd splashes of instrumentation and vocal effects that add a sci-fi atmosphere. On “Shadows on Behalf,” it’s easy to picture the band playing in a sweltering 1970s nightclub, decked out in all white threads in front of crimson velvet curtains. The stand-offish, almost translucent, production values throughout means lyrics can be hard to isolate, but the writing typically leans on interesting motifs. “Shadows on Behalf” captures the anticipation of seeing a sweetheart again—sleepless nights as the mind runs in circles—adding in some cosmic imagery: “Reflections of that mortal face and eyes shining like stars/The very essence of your glare is never very far.”
There there is “La La La,” an obvious analogue of Minnie Ripperton’s “Les Fleur.” Jessie Ware recently made one of these more recently called “Remember Where You Are.”
Edinberg has since taken part in a ZOX reunion and written song for .Paak, among others. Gitelman has added the likes of The Weeknd and Usher to his client list. But not before The Stepkids added another album, Troubadour (2013)—which featured more electronic instruments and some Fleet Foxes-size choruses—plus a few loose singles and gimmicky cover performances (“Suit & Tie” with a double bass!) to their oeuvre. But I didn’t gravitate towards any of their stuff as much as The Stepkids. Illuminated by the passage of time, it feels more and more like minor masterpiece that knocked some classic genres on their asses.
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