Crowd pleasers

Otherworldly explorations: Whether they’re singing about intergalactic dinosaurs or thought revolution or a world of flowers, Asheville’s Secret B-Sides want to “tempt their listeners into enlightenment.”

There's a lot happening on the soon-to-be-released album, Flowers and Chocolate, the sophomore effort by local band Secret B-Sides. There are synthesizers and horns, party noises and samples, guest artists and hip-hop verse — and, like a slinky backbone through it all, the blithe and soulful lyrics of Juan Holladay.

There's also a lot going on behind the scenes. If Holladay, quiet and agreeable, seems an unlikely band leader, think again. In front of the mic he possesses an insouciant magnetism. "The band seems to draw people — both fans and collaborators," says drummer Robin Tolleson.

Tolleson attributes some of the draw to Holladay's playfulness. B-Sides songs are known for pairing danceable R&B grooves with references to dinosaurs and flying saucers. And then there's the release party for Flowers, where fans are invited to wear footie pajamas. If they do, they get a free copy of the CD.

“It's about doing things that pull you out of your mind and not taking yourself too seriously," says Holladay. "Footie pajamas have always been part of the mythology."

The "mythology" relates both to Holladay's own spirituality and his high-school introduction to gospel music. It's also about more recent lessons learned from romance and heartbreak.

Dinosaurs are prehistoric, but in Holladay's vision, the ancient lizards board a futuristic space ship that brings them into a parallel universe where they never face extinction. Instead of vanishing, they develop their brains over millennia so they become a much more enlightened species than their relatively young human counterparts.

Holladay also sees dinosaurs and flying saucers as a metaphor for the B-Sides’ sound: "We're taking types of music that are a little bit older and trying to fuse them with stuff that's really hip," he says.

Local hip-hop artists lend rhymes to various tracks — Chach is featured on "That '60s Show" and "On to You," Agent 23 is on "Rap n Roll" (Holladay also performs his first-ever recorded rap on the song) and frequent B-Sides contributor Preach Jacobs lends his voice to "Ergonomics."

Lithe hip-hop melds seamlessly with brassy horns and woodwinds (Jason Moore, Sean Smith, Ben Hovey, John Furnas, Pauly Juhl and Robert Gonzales), Melissa Hyman’s cello meets vocal contributors The Southern Silk Duo, Marley Carroll's scratches share sonic space with Shayne Heather's sinuous, old-school bass lines.

The new album builds on Holladay's mythology, this time tapping into his own story. "Flowers come up a lot for me," he says. His mother is from the Yaqui tribe, a Native American tribe whose cosmology includes a number of different worlds, among them a heavenly flower world. Holladay himself is perhaps more closely aligned with chocolate — he used to work at the Chocolate Fetish and often performs at the French Broad Chocolate Lounge (where, last month, he held a preview listening party for the album).

"The point is, if flowers are about enlightenment, chocolate is about temptation," says Holladay. "This record is about tempting people into enlightenment."

Which is not to say that Flowers isn't rife with enticement. There are plenty of baby-makers, but the suggestive "Intercourse" (a spoken-word interlude by the Southern Silk Duo), the driving "Ergonomics" (with its hand claps and crowd noise and the lead-in line, "Your body's so ergonomic, just like that, all I'm doing is holding on it"), and sultry, Marvin Gaye-inspired "Date." But unlike Gaye's call for sexual healing, Holladay's song says, "You don't have to take your clothes off on the first date … you don't have to take your clothes off on the 599th date."

That same sense of evolution comes across in the horn-fueled "Liberate" (which touches on both feminism and the progression of soul music — and works in the word "dino-mation") and "That ‘60s Show." The latter is a bit of an opus, using feel-good funk and soul to talk about how anti-war and civil rights ideals of the 1960s are still relevant and necessary today.

Flowers has been a work-in-progess for almost three years now. Tolleson says the projects "started the day Jeff Knorr joined the band." Knorr is both a keyboardist and an engineer at Collapseable Studios where, in his free time, he's recorded the album. But even though some time has passed since the earliest tracks (many of those played by drummer Tolleson) were laid down in the studio, and even though the B-Sides have been performing many of the songs live, the release of Flowers is sure to bring a few surprises.

As Tolleson says, “This band is poised to do something.”

— Alli Marshall can be reached at amarshall@mountainx.com.

who: Secret B-Sides
what: CD release party for Flowers and Chocolate, hosted by Jenny Juice with DJ sets by Nigel One
where: The LAB’s back stage
when: Saturday, April 16 (9:30 p.m. $8/$10 with CD. lexavebrew.com)

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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