Somewhat miscast as a jamband or roots-rock act—after all, no suitable descriptor exists for a group blending soul, gospel, funk, jazz, and any other flavor of world music wafting through its sonic DNA—it’s easy to dismiss Sonia Dada simply because it’s so hard to figure out exactly what it is they’re doing. Test Pattern isn’t likely to make the job of marketing reps any easier, as the band continues to muddy the stylistic waters they so deftly inhabit. For the first time, however, they just might be positioning themselves for a move into previously uncharted territory: radio success.
Think Prince cutting an Americana album with Sly and the Family Stone as his backup band. Sure, this mix is no easier a sell to commercial radio now than it was when Sonia Dada emerged over 10 years ago, but this also happens to be the most streamlined and accessible album in their catalog. Though you’d never know it from the innovative mélange of tablas and Bollywood vocal samples snaking throughout the warm soulful opener “Moons of Jupiter,” there is a straightforwardness underlying the hooky soul-pop of “Old Bones” and the imminently catchy “Diggin’ On a Road.”
By the time you reach the album’s midsection, traces of world music have largely faded out of the mix, leaving only the occasional mandolin or sitar poking through fairly tame acoustic soul-pop and quasi-funk grooves. Even though the glossy production doesn’t suggest the material’s inherent weight, there are moments such as the bittersweet retro-soul balladry of “Lights Out” where all the constituent elements in the mix line up perfectly. But while those always-impeccable vocals redeem the less imaginative arrangements, the writing frequently opts for easy rhymes and overreaching sentiments, rescued from self-seriousness only by the innocently playful ethic and disarming sense of community among the impressive cast of characters trading lead vocals.
While they never allow their sound to become as cluttered as the stylistic grab-bag approach might predict, it’s possible that in being so careful to do so, they’ve missed discovering something truly exceptional in the process. As is common with almost any band that attempts to mix Western pop forms and world-music elements, the emerging product ends up being a somewhat amorphous mix of both, with neither coming through as strongly as they could in isolation. While this is a step in the right direction, it’s not quite the epic one might assume such massive talents would be capable of, not the perfect amalgam of bedrock Americana ethic and world-beat soul that could blend such traditions into something more than a genre-stumping concept.
Even so, it’s a good, if not exceptional, album, and the bonus DVD of two short films conceived by frontman Dan Pritzker and cinematographer Jeth Weinrich provide a fascinating side note.