Shookrah launched their debut album not quite at the ends of the Earth but the far end of Dublin city centre. A bevy of swans gather close to Portobello’s Bello Bar – like a rhythm and blues-loving Children of Lir – as the venue is transformed into a subterranean art deco funk box and these Cork vanguards of satin-smooth sounds read from their groovy manifesto.
Independent Irish albums rarely achieve ubiquitous presence, even in the cities that birthed them. I haven’t been to Cork in a while but I’d like to believe that Shookrah’s self-titled album is the hottest thing to happen since 2005, when Chick Corea sashayed into town. Such justice, though, is a rare commodity.
This is a musical puzzle with no missing pieces. Shookrah come across as young, fun, tension-free outfit with confidence in every part of their machine. They draw from the kings and queens of 1970s funk and 1990s neo soul in equal measure while occasionally flying the same astral course as Flying Lotus. The band get down like Anderson .Paak, show the romanticism of Toni Braxton, and could even slide into the London contemporary jazz revival if they ever chose to relocate.
Though they spark thoughts of greats of past and present, Shookrah never sound caged in by their influences. It would be easy for a throwback funk outfit to write songs around a few slightly altered Parliament-Funkadelic riffs, but Shookrah are their own musical beast. Their quest for originality is detectable in the band’s description of their work: “dystopian romance-themed songs”. Mind you, rather than feeling post-apocalyptic, this is music that could easily be played in the Elysian Fields of R&B.
I tipped Shookrah for exciting things when I included them in an Irish Times Body & Soul 2017 preview piece and as part of the paper’s “50 People to Watch in 2018” feature, so let’s just say the release of their strong first album has me feeling as smug as a mug. The potential was clear all the way back in 2014 when they released “Woman”, a female-empowerment anthem that evoked Patti LaBelle and potentially positioned the band next to the throwback sounds of veteran artists like Lee Fields and the late Sharon Jones.
But by the time the band hit their 2017 EP Clichés, they’d mutated into a more contemporary collective. Nothing like its title, the release was full of interesting quirks. Funk music tends to pull octane from the bass and horns, but on songs such as “Gerascophobia”, Shookrah subverted genre norms by drawing energy from pyrotechnic percussion sections.
Now, with the release of their first full-length, the band find the style they’ve been driving towards. Like many of the best debut albums, it feels like an encapsulation of the first era of Shookrah while building on lessons learned from their earlier recordings. They’ve undergone some line-up changes, chiseling the collective down to a fearsome five – Senita Appiakorang (vocals), Emmet O’Riabhaigh (drums), Brian Dunlea (bass), Diarmait Mac Cárthaigh (keys and synth) and Daniel Coughlan (guitar). With Brendan Fennessy, once of O Emperor, sometimes behind the boards, the result is a sound that feels more full-bodied than ever before.
If it wasn’t already obvious, the album launch in Bello Bar reveals Shookrah’s methodology to be fully formed. Opening with “Level Up” – also the first track on the album – their instrumentation beautifully congeals. The peppy keys, squelchy synth riffs and fat bass over mid-tempo drums blend into a softly bumpin’ bedrock that dips, swirls, and percolates. Meanwhile, Coughlan’s guitar licks are a potent hot sauce. How the axeman layers the songs with infectious slabs of guitar is not dissimilar to how Prince once deployed the instrument, and one of Shookrah’s defining characteristics.
Front and centre is Appiakorang, based in Dublin these days, whose voice is equal parts soulful and forceful. “We’re permeating every space,” Appiakorang sings on “Level Up” . “It started stealthily now it’s full-blown.” It’s an eloquent encapsulation of Shookrah’s current position in the Irish music landscape.
“Flex” showcases Appiakorang’s vocal dexterity as she veers from a high-pitched falsetto to spitting out her words with venom. “Time to flex, time to flex,” she sneers, punctuating every syllable with a sledgehammer. On the other end of the spectrum, “Why Can’t You Stay” is a sensual slow jam that could catch the ear of masters of the form Jodeci, Keith Sweat and Floetry.
Dipping into the past, the band pull “Babahdah” from their first EP Implicit Content. Cast in a new light, it’s clear the slinking groove was an early example of the band’s surly excellence. The buzzing, irresistible synths are reminiscent of Kool & The Gang’s “Summer Madness” (famously transformed into DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince’s “Summertime”) that melts away thoughts of the winter chill pressing down above Bello Bar.
On “Big Bitch Energy”, the album’s most strikingly experimental jam, Appiakorang sells the whacky spoken word vocals with attitude and confidence, asserting her position as Ireland’s new-age preacher of funk scripture. By this point, two dancers have appeared to add extra verve to the final leg of the show, perching themselves out in front and on both sides of Appiakorang to compliment her own rhythmic sways. It’s a wonderful spectacle that puts the button on a performance from a rising band on scintillating form.