Damon Albarn, Tony Allen and Flea. With Erykah Badu, Fatoumata Diawara, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, M.anifest, and Cheick Tidiane Seck. High up in the skies, amongst the clouds, Rocket Juice & The Moon was born. Literally. It happened back in 2008, when Damon Albarn, Flea and Tony Allen convened on the same Lagos flight, to play and exchange musical ideas in that city as part of the Africa Express collective. Relishing a shared enthusiasm for one another's work, and bonding immediately, there and then the triumvirate laid down the blueprint for Rocket Juice. Still, more than a year passed before conditions were set for three weeks together at Albarn's West London studio, recording and refining two-dozen startlingly out and deeply funky instrumental grooves. The next stage was to invite onboard some extremely talented friends, with further sessions in Dallas, New York, Chicago and Paris
Erykah Badu, no less, queen of contemporary soul. Three companions from Africa Express: Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, whose debut album has topped World Music charts since its release last Autumn; her multi-talented compatriot Cheick Tidiane Seck, whose prodigious keyboardism has lit up releases by artists ranging from Youssou N'Dour to Hank Jones; the young, Ghanaian rapper M.anifest, quizzically existential, switching seamlessly between Twi and English. And the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, long-time stalwarts in the Honest Jon's set-up. Finally, the tracks were dispatched for mixing to Berlin, to be meticulously honed, polished and envenomed by Mark Ernestus, one half of the legendary Basic Channel and Rhythm & Sound partnerships. The result is Rocket Juice & The Moon, a triumphant exploration and proliferation of kinetic Afro-funk rhythms: organic, exuberant, communal music-making, evidenced by the project's live debut on stage as part of the Honest Jon's Chop Up in late 2011, which hit London, Marseille, Dublin, and Cork to such great acclaim. Where the best of vintage Afrobeat sides sustained their concentrated energies over the course of sprawling, marathon jams, RJ & TM manages something altogether different: the group bottles the idiom into capsules of funk
and real songs. Beautifully buoyed by Erykah Badu's unmistakable vocals, Hey, Shooter brilliantly traverses metaphysical spaceways sans any semblance of noodling. Lolo and Follow-Fashion featuring the open-hearted sensuality of Diawara's singing, M.anifest's quick, brawny science, and more brass blasts play like its musical cousins or codas. Indeed, the album's shrewd sequencing creates the composite effect of tracks working both individually or within the context of an extended song-cycle.
To enjoy this excellent album, it probably helps to bear certain things in mind. Firstly, you should be aware that this is a funk album. A very odd funk album, but a funk album nonetheless. If you do not like funk, there is every chance you will not enjoy it. This may seem like an obvious thing to point out, but several early reviews of this 18-track gem have been written by the self-diagnosed funk-phobic who then go on to register their surprise that they have not really connected with it. But given that the rhythm section of the group includes arguably the world’s funkiest drummer (Tony Allen) and its most famous white funk bassist currently applying a bony thumb to a fretless instrument (Flea), it’s hard to take these lukewarm reviews seriously.
Secondly, this is a jam album, and if you’re averse to looseness then this just isn’t going to cut it. This album is hellishly loose. You know the old woman who lived in the shoe? The one who had so many children she didn’t know what to do? This album is much looser than her. Imagine you got locked in a laxative factory with nothing else to eat for an entire weekend. Your stools on Monday morning would be compact and bullet-like compared to the looseness of this collection of synth funk, neo-Afrobeat, highlife, organic hip hop and nu-soul jams. In a final fit of total looseness, the band simply sent off a bunch of recordings to their record label and left it to the sleeve designer to give them and the album a name.
Thirdly, RJ&TM may also feature Damon Albarn as a core member, but his job here is not singing Kinks-inspired vignettes about pigeon fanciers called Bert who live in Surbiton in a Mockney accent. Instead, he’s teasing a refreshingly unhinged wall of fizzing and bleeping sound out of an array of analogue synthesizers. To be fair he does sing on a couple of tracks, most notably Poison which is reminiscent of one of Blur’s all-too-uncommon, introspective, sincere ballads. Vocal duties elsewhere are shared between an impressive international cast of singers and rappers, including the mesmeric Erykah Badu who, along with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, makes Hey, Shooter so memorable.
Put simply, this album is too stone to the bone for dilettantes or debutantes – but for those wanting a herbalised oddity that tips its scruffy, psychedelic cap to Fela Kuti, William Onyeabor, the Ohio Players, Fred Wesley, Augustus Pablo, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Bootsy Collins, this album is a genuinely enjoyable find.
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