[MINIMAL ELECTRO-FUNK] When you get two musicians as talented as keyboardist Ben Darwish (Commotion, Ben Darwish Trio, recent Shook Twins collaboration) and drummer Drew Shoals (Dan Balmer, Tony Furtado) together, the temptation is for them to show off to one another. Which is why their debut as Duo Denim surprises: Beautifully played, to be sure, the Heat Rocks Vol. 1 EP is far more interested in clean instrumental songwriting and melodic clarity than it is in showing off.
Maybe it's the intimate nature of the combo that keeps them in line: After all, elongated solos from either player (there are no solos taken on the five-song EP) would just seem a little bit indulgent. So instead, Darwish and Shoals focus on making atmospheric, genreless tunes that feel inspired by vintage funk, '70s soundtracks, math rock and video games. What do you call this stuff? I don't know. Each song is its own little universe. But each song works.
"Purple Drank" is almost as gangsta as it sounds, a vaguely threatening and decidedly West Coast hip-hop instrumental that occasionally breaks into a dirty funk groove. "Let It Pass" has the bounce-along vibe and melodic simplicity of Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown tunes, with Shoals' drumming ever on the edge of explosion. "Don't Say Namaste" is soulful but distant—it feels like an elegy for someone the duo respected but never actually met, and it's the loosest, most rocking song in the collection.
But it's closers "Spud Webb" and "P-Town Rivals" that get really interesting, if only because the songs seem more a product of Portland's indie-rock scene than something two jazz-bred players would dream up. Both tunes retain a dose of swing, but Starfucker fans could make perfect sense of this stuff. Hell, Starfucker fans could even dance to it. So where does Duo Denim fit into the Portland music scene? Eh, just file it in the "great music" category.