Dexter Wansel Returns to the Stars on The Story of the Flight Crew to Mars
The first album from the Philly soul legend in 17 years reinvents his astral fascination from scratch.
When NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars, I was half-hoping that somewhere in the photos I’d see the vague outline of an astronaut. For years Hollywood has doctored images of Martian landings, teasing the idea that life exists somewhere on that dusty, red-soiled planet.
I’m still waiting for the first human to land on Mars but in the meantime, Philadelphia soul and funk legend Dexter Wansel continues the time worn tradition of pondering what life might look like on the Red Planet on his latest album, The Story of the Flight Crew to Mars. Wansel’s musical fascination with the cosmos reaches back to the 1970s, when he released his heralded record Life on Mars.
The science-fiction theme that oozes through every fiber of Life on Mars is in full effect on Wansel’s latest offering. But while Life on Mars imbued the sci-fi sound through rouge, wandering synths and wispy lyrics that implored listeners to travel the cosmos, Flight Crew to Mars takes a more direct approach. Interspersing each of the album’s 12 songs are skits that set the stage for Wansel, the flight crew, and passengers.
At first listen, it’s a heavy handed approach. Wansel, whose creativity was unleashed through Philly soul, disco, funk, and jazz songs, neatly lays out the voyage through vocalized sketches. Fans of Wansel’s previous metaphoric usage of music to craft narratives might immediately be taken aback. Press on through the album, however, and it’s apparent that the music is every bit as ambitious as Wansel’s records from the 1970s and 1980s.
The track list is theatrical in its execution. In one moment, passengers are traversing the space gate, prepping to board and in the next they are lulled into comfort with “Ion Drive.” A luscious fusion piece, “Ion Drive” features Wansel’s updated take on warbling, outer space synths alongside a Rick Tate saxophone performance. But no sooner than he embraces the comforts of yesteryear, Wansel recalculates his flight path.
Most times, the skits are directly relevant to the songs that follow them. After passengers witness theComet Ravi Shankar whiz by, Wansel plays an eponymously named track that pays homage to the Indian composer through a dark, sitar driven trip hop cut. And once the ship’s AI informs the crew that it’s midnight on December 25 back on Earth, the album cuts away to a soulful Christmas track complete with jingle bells and memories of holiday traditions.
Though the skits telegraph some of Wansel’s freshest moves, they soften the blow for an album that without them would feel jumbled. While Life on Mars’ “Theme from the Planets” flows almost seamlessly into “Rings of Saturn,” tracks on Flight Crew are best supported by their interludes. Following a last call for passengers to take the dance floor, Wansel breaks out “The Next Time I See You,” a disco cut featuring vocals from Gino Woody Bianchi, Damon Williams and Tesa Williams. It’s a love struck song which, like the preceding skit suggests, is a throwback to Wansel’s work from the past.
Throughout the rest of the tape, Wansel calls in favors from his lengthy Rolodex of musical contacts. Pianist Yoichi Uzeki plays on the fusion cut “Radio Galaxy” that would sound at home on Wansel’s last drop, Digital Groove World. The jazz cat Kirk Abernathy helps Wansel drift towards house music on “Gamma Ray Burst.” In all, the guests feel less like disparate features and more like parts of the arrangements that coalesce to articulate Wansel’s vision.
Flight Crew to Mars is a fascinating journey through the ages of musical ideas that Wansel has encountered over his decades-long career. He’s clearly trying new things, but unlike some artists that use new records to distance them from fans’ old expectations, Wansel embraces the old and new with style. Flight Crew to Mars takes place 200 years into the future, which almost feels far-fetched considering billionaire Jeff Bezos will take a trip into orbit next month. The cosmos are more in reach than ever before and Wansel’s music continues to explore life from an extraterrestrial vantage point.