Summertime Soul: The Downtown Rulers Club Make a Stylish Debut

 by Nick Hanover

Downtown Rulers Club Paris DJs

You’d think Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black success would have resulted in a much larger wave of pretenders than it did. Ms. Winehouse’s tragic life aside, the work she and her collaborators the Dap-Kings, Mark Ronson and Salaam Remi did stood in sharp contrast to a frequently lifeless pop scene. It was a classic sound, certainly, but the energy and verve was fresh and while the Downtown Rulers Club’s debut EP is free of the tragic underpinning that gave Winehouse’s material such weight, they’ve provided one of the better post-Winehouse neo-soul debuts.

A collaboration between Grupo Fantasma’s Beto Martinez and Alex Chavez, a relative newcomer, Downtown Rulers Club is the latest project presented by Paris DJs, an international crew with a taste for retro styles and sounds. Martinez handles the production and guitar while Chavez is thrust into the spotlight with his vocals and organ playing. The EP arguably peaks early with “Uneventful,” a down-tempo funk number that starts as a play on “I Put a Spell on You” before Chavez’s vocal enters the picture and creates a much smoother kind of spookiness. It builds to an ecstatic, joyful chorus, the musical equivalent of reaching the point in your misery where you just decide to embrace it. Chavez has a powerful voice and a keen eye for melody, but his chief weakness is that he’s a little too clean and impeccable. Luckily, his backing band, which includes What Made Milwaukee Famous players Greg Gonzalez and Jeremy Bruch on bass and drums respectively, are tight enough to match his precision but loose enough to give “Uneventful” a flavorful shamble, like shuffling zombies to Chavez’s dapper voodoo king.

Chavez’s organ playing gets more of the spotlight on “All My Stories,” where it duels with Martinez’s spry guitar licks in service of some lighter funk balladry. “All My Stories” has the crisp summertime feel of Jamie Lidell’s “Multiply,” particularly since Lidell and Chavez share an affinity for melodic soul with myriad hooks. The up tempo structure of “All My Stories” is also a better fit for Chavez’s voice, requiring less gravitas and more pop charm as he tries to convince a lover to stick around.  That said, its preceding track “Sugar” suffers slightly from the same treatment; there, Chavez’s voice is just a little too fluffy and the end result is the most saccharine moment on the record. It’s not bad by any means, but it could use more of the gruff rhythm playing of what surrounds it or, alternately, a female vocal presence to make Chavez’s low range delivery stand out a bit more from the backing.

As far as vocal takes go, Chavez’s best performance comes at the end with the ’50s-style ballad “Standby,” where the instrumentation is more sparse and his vocal is allowed to stretch out completely, going from desperate wail to whispering croon and back again. It’s a more obvious throwback than the rest of the EP, though it does mix things up on the chorus, when the Grupo Fantasma horns come in at full force and Chavez takes his voice up to unimaginable heights. Martinez gets in some fiery solos, too, which provides a taste of blues in the otherwise strictly sock hop oriented song. Bruch manages to even turn some rhythm cliches on their head, getting in unexpected snare flourishes in between a metronomic hi-hat beat.

The biggest effect of “Standby,” though, is that it highlights the flexibility of the Downtown Rulers Club and provides a tease of what other avenues the group might explore on a full length. They may occupy a cleaner facet of neo-soul than Amy Winehouse and the Dap-Kings do, but they also seem to be more unorthodox and more willing to hop around the different styles of the eras they’re pillaging. Maybe they’ll even take this show on the road soon and put these songs in the service of some fleet footed dance hungry crowds.

Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Ovrld as well as Loser City, where he mostly writes about comics.  You can also flip through his archives at  Comics Bulletinwhich he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culturewhere he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with his friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover