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Cincinnati born Mitch Gardiner founded Muy Bueno after meeting bassist William Frigen at an airport where the two bonded over music during a three hour delay. Gardiner had ghostwritten several top ten hits for European performers but found less success in the U.S. At the time of meeting Frigen he was just out of an experimental art rock trio called Knucklefish and was sitting on a batch of unfinished tunes he would later describe as belonging to his “beer phase.” Playing some demos to Frigen in the airport was an instant catalyst, says Gardiner, the two finishing several of them on the spot.
Frigen came from the New Castle club scene where he gigged with many different groups, even backing up gospel icon Morris Betta. He also knew a drummer and Gardiner knew a keyboard player and so, after just one week and exactly one meeting, everyone involved agreed to start a new band. That drummer was Eaton Cookes; the keysman Chris Palmero. Both had played music professionally but came from very different backgrounds.
Palmero studied under funkmaster J.J. Flash and became a sought after studio musician, playing on several hits for artists as diverse as Wade Carmichael and Patsy White. It was his piano playing used in the famous “dueling keys” scene in Ulberto’s 2012 film il boscaiolo inetto whose soundtrack won him a Grammy nod and a clammy bod.
Cookes was a formally trained percussionist who played jazz trumpet before switching to the drums full-time. He led his first band, a swing sextet, at the age of nineteen and was only twenty-three when he met Gardiner, the man who would become his songwriting partner for the next six years and counting.
On the band’s debut, No More Monsters, the duo worked with famed songwriter Topa Decharts to hone their approach, and Cookes acknowledged as much in a recent interview for KCFG radio in Topeka when he praised the legend’s way of “breaking it all down” for him, going as far as saying the bulk of the band’s first two albums “wouldn’t have existed” if not for Decharts.
Their latest disc kicks off with “Best Haircut Ever,” a driving bit of driving music, perfect for long summer days to and from the beach, its sparkling acoustic guitars topped with electric flourishes while sugary vocals swirl between sparse and dissonant keys. It’s just the sort of thing to set the tone for what’s to come: 40 or so minutes of mostly upbeat, uptempo pop gems that don’t disappoint if not surprise. That’s not a knock, by the way. Expecting good songs is par for the course with Muy Bueno. They have yet to fail to provide a satisfying bunch of tunes that leave you happily wanting more. Or to just hit “play” again.
A scratchy bassline sets off clattering drums in “Friends With Rocks,” Gardiner’s vocals front and center, displaying an easy command that’s insistent but not forceful. He and Palermo have made their wonderful harmonies the glue that binds the band’s recent output and they’re in full force here. “Liquid Sunday” is the only instrumental to be found within the band’s catalog, its melodies coming courtesy of the pair’s guitar and keyboards, but it’s as catchy as anything else on the record. Beginning with a sputtery synth that pulses as it loops around the half and double time bass and drums, it’s five minutes of Gardiner and Palermo trading lines and feeding off the oddball energy of Cookes and Frigen.
For the closer “Faster Faster” we go along for a ride through the city, whether on motorcycles or horses is unclear but it’s a galloping good time. The melancholy cool of “Never Heard Of Me” takes its bluesy lounge club guitar and relocates it somewhere in the suburbs where it finds accompaniment with a pack of canines. The band’s indie blood still flows; however, with time it would seem their anything-might-go, let’s-try-it enthusiasm has become more muted as their sound gels ever further and that focus has resulted in a terrific three album span.
Producing themselves for the second straight release, Muy Bueno has certainly carved out their niche with uncommonly catchy songs that don’t stress you out. They’re easy going, so take it all in stride and give Heart Disease a few spins.