Album Review and Q&A: ENGLISH — ‘Mona Lucy’

The Des Moines-based band ENGLISH began a few years ago when guitarist and vocalist Chris English assembled a group to record some songs he’d written to commemorate 25 years of remission from childhood cancer. English enlisted Justin Goes on bass, Russ Tomlinson on drums, Hans Decker on trumpet and Tommy Doggett on saxophone. Those songs became their debut album, There’s Nothing New Under the Sun, which was released in 2017.

On July 30, the band released their first EP: the aptly titled Mona Lucy. The five-song set finds ENGLISH writing together as a group for the first time, and the results are a genre-bending collection of jazz-soul rockers.

They’ve chosen to describe their sound as “tater-tot casserole rock,” which probably gains them automatic billing at the State Fair. As English says, “you throw in all kinds of good stuff but no two dishes are ever the same.” After listening to this EP, that seems to be as good a description as any. From the outset, the formula here is foolproof: a furious yet unrushed interplay between guitar and horns, pushed forward and tied together by a locked-in rhythm section.

Mona Lucy sets its tone early with “Ouroboros,” an almost prog-metal headbanger in which English tries on his best Ronnie James Dio masquerade. It’s a traditional “rat race” tune with severe arena rock overtones throughout, both melodic and lyrical:

Keep living in the reverie / the future is a memory
But now this is the moment / when two contradictions collide

As the name of the tune implies, it’s cyclical in nature, the horns and guitar swelling and cresting continuously back onto themselves.

On the second track, “From Hell to Breakfast,” the horn charts are sweeping and provide a weighty counterpunch to English’s jazz rock riff. The duo of Decker and Doggett push the song’s intensity higher and higher, while English offers up some slacker sage advice: “Don’t lose yourself going ass over ambition.”

The standout tracks on the EP are the interconnected pair of “Mona Lucy” and “Directions.” The title track begins a surf-rock suite that’s deftly driven by Tomlinson’s impossibly tight drumming. The track sort of sounds like if the Trashmen hired some disgruntled jazz players to stretch out their arrangements. It’s phenomenal, and fading into the instrumental “Directions,” it finally gives the quintet the space to stretch out. The horns are distant in the mix here, shifty, dreamy. (They sound like they were recorded one county away from the microphone.) There are a myriad of tempos and tonalities on this pair of interconnected tunes, and I can only imagine the power these must have bellowing from the stage.

In fact, I bet that all of these songs are flat dangerous live, loosened up a bit and allowed to fully breathe. Mona Lucy captures ENGLISH at its purest form, which seems to be as full throttle tater-tot casserole rockers. I think that means they are best consumed live and fresh out of the oven with other hungry humans. Here’s to hoping for more chances for this band to serve it up in person, wherever they can.

Q&A with Chris English of ENGLISH

Mona Lucy will be ENGLISH’s second official release. How did this set of songs come together and get recorded during the pandemic?

This record came together much differently than our debut album, where I had most of the parts written before I even recruited the band. This time around it was important that our sound wasn’t just my vision but a collective effort from the whole group, start to finish. And without breaking it down song-by-song, that’s truly how it ended up.

As for recording, we actually went into Sonic Factory for our first session the week before everything started shutting down. It was then a few months before we were able to safely come back to finish tracking. We then purposely stretched out the mixing and mastering process because at the time there was still no end in sight when we might be able to do a proper release and safely play shows to support it. But this prolonged process only made us more proud of what we were putting together, and I like to think of that as a bit of a silver lining.

Tell us about Lucille Ball’s influence on this EP.

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That one comes from my wife. She has a profound love for mid-century everything, including the shows and movies of the time. The Mona Lucy concept, though, comes from [my wife’s] experiences as a woman trying to make her way professionally in male-dominated industries. … she [has] expressed how society still holds on to these weird ideals for women, as though they’re supposed to be viewed like the Mona Lisa, when (in her words) “they ought to be more like Lucille Ball,” a hero of hers who broke many boundaries in her lifetime.

And this concept of the Mona Lisa-Lucy dual perspective really stuck with me … I’m not trying to come across as some great feminist, but I thought it would be beneficial to write the song “Mona Lucy” as kind of the “idiot men’s guide to feminism.” Kind of a shout-out to the men who are trying to evolve and understand, but are honest with themselves that they’re going to trip over their own feet a lot along the way.

The band has recently returned to playing locally. How good does it feel to finally play in front of a crowd again?

It has meant everything to us. … When we played [Des Moines] Arts Fest it started to hammer down rain and I thought, “Bummer; the crowd is going to bail.” But honestly, the opposite happened, and people stayed out there, got soaked, danced and sang. It was incredible. May we never take live music for granted. I think we all realized just what a privilege it is to have those experiences, both as a performer and a fan.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 298.