IT WASN'T until I started hanging in clubs after college that I found house music. The friends I made in Philly, New York and, especially, Chicago loved the stuff.
Initially, I found much of it too repetitive, the beat too hard. I'd sit back in the clubs and watch folks on the floor writhe, jerk and sweat away to the pounding, mechanical music as if they were all possessed. Wall to wall, back to back, they were slaves to the beat. And I'd sip my cocktail, thinking: "Nah. I don't get it."
But in the five years since I graduated from college, I've softened a bit to house. And I got a copy of Tortured Soul's debut, Introducing Tortured Soul, which came out in May. Then I did something I didn't think I would (or could) ever do: I actually dug a whole album of house music.
The genre is basically disco (a much-maligned but often brilliant style) but with a harder 4 / 4 drum-machine-generated beat minus the overlay of swirling strings and incessant high-hats.
Playing the Funk Box Wednesday night, Tortured Soul is a three-piece, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based band bringing warmth to a genre whose sound is usually steely and robotic. At the heart of the music, of course, is that endless, get-up-out-ya-seat beat, but TS adds live bass lines, live drum fills and jazz-minded keyboards. The band's music also folds in Brazilian pop flavors and African rhythms.
"When we play, we do one continued set like a DJ," says Christian Urich, the trio's founder, drummer and lead vocalist. He's calling from his Brooklyn pad. "We segue from different songs with some improvisation. It gives a new perspective on how to listen to the music."
The improvisation isn't as pronounced on the album. (Sometimes, in the way the songs are mixed, the beat obliterates the instrumental licks.) But the organic elements are nicely underscored by Christian's yearning, Stevie Wonder-influenced singing style and ebullient melodies. His vocals buoy "I Might Do Something Wrong" and "You Found a Way."
Christian and the other band members -- keyboardist Ethan White and bassist Jason Kriveloff -- lessen the intensity of the beat and showcase their solid musicianship on the Dexter Wansel-influenced "Epic," which goes through several invigorating changes and clocks in at over nine minutes.
"We're all live musicians, and we're trying to maintain a spiritual thing," says 30-something Christian, a native New Yorker.
I dig that. But uplifting sounds from a group with a name like Tortured Soul?
"If you listen to some of the [lyrical] content, it's about unfulfilled desires and the spiritual strains that happen to people when they're not in a place they want to be," Christian explains. "Being tortured may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it's in reference to the quest for freedom."
The singer-songwriter-musician came up with the idea for the group in 2001 and recruited Ethan and Jason, two session players and artists in their own right. Christian had already established himself as one half of the underground contemporary soul duo Cooly's Hot Box, whose latest release, last year's brilliant Don't Be Afraid -- Get On, brings to mind classic Brand New Heavies.
Tortured Soul is the more dance-oriented of Christian's projects. (But Angela Johnson, his talented, fiery-voiced partner in Cooly's Hot Box, would be a great addition to the TS songs.) Before the debut came out, the trio toured with the Godfather, James Brown, Maceo Parker, Soulive and Widespread Panic.
"Tortured Soul is mostly around the same tempo as Cooly's Hot Box, even though Cooly is more song-oriented," says Christian, who grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, absorbing '70s pop-soul from such acts as Heatwave, Donna Summer and Stevie. "There's a wider range of colors with Cooly's Hot Box, plus a female perspective with Angela, who writes great songs." Christian says.
While Angela works on some solo projects, Christian is focused on TS. The group's club tour wraps up toward the end of this month.
"We're trying to express a spiritual message," he says. "We want people to continue to enjoy house music. Dance music lives."
Check out Tortured Soul at the Funk Box, 10 E. Cross St., Wednesday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15 and are available at Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting www. ticketmaster.com.