Brian Feeney

Rocket Juice and the Moon

Oh, man. When was the last time you heard really good new funk? Funk that wasn't just programmed to hit the right beats, but music played by actual fingers and hands and aimed right at that place in your trunk that makes you involuntarily scrunch on the one? Probably the last time you listened to a twenty-year old Fela Kuti record. And that was probably because Tony Allen was nailing it. He's nailing it again on Rocket Juice and the Moon.

One of the biggest complaints about The Good, the Bad, and the Queen (the previous similarly outfitted supergroup by Damon Albarn) was that Allen was largely missing from the mix. And it's true. His drumming, though solid and in the groove, was never allowed to shine. That is absolutely not true on Rocket Juice and the Moon. He is the center, the sun, the all of it . . . and it's awesome. It makes me wonder why there are so few records which feature live drums so prominently. [Note to self to go hunting for them.]

Many of the songs are too short (the tracklisting is 20 deep, the album 62min.), which does a disservice to many of the grooves Allen provides. There's a reason so many Afro-Pop recordings are 20min+; the mind-blowing quality of the rhythm sections more or less demand it, and never once taxing my ever-decreasing American short-attention-span. So on more than a few tracks here you're going to be caught by surprise when your ears notice the fade out sliding in. But many of them do ride out long enough that you'll feel satisfied. There's a lot to like.

This is a classic Albarn project in that he's mostly obscured by the talent around him. Like with Gorillaz, if you aren't all too familiar with the way he works, you might not realize this was one of his records. It even took me, a huge Albarn fan and devotee, over a year to realize that the first Gorillaz record was actually a "solo" record, as were the following two. That's his M.O. Aside from Blur, which is a true band in the classic sense of the word, what Albarn does with his other projects is quintessential collaboration. All of us music lovers, I assume, have played the Dream Supergroup game, in which we try to imagine what would happen if all of our favorite musicians made a record together. This is essentially what Albarn has been doing the last ten years. For chrissakes, on the Plastic Beach tour, he had Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Lou Reed, Mos Def, Tony Allen, Bobby Womack, and De La Soul all on the same goddamn stage. Jeeeeeeezus.

There aren't any tricks to Rocket Juice and the Moon, no gimmicks. This is what happens when you put a handful of truly gifted musicians in a room and hit record. Fatoumata Diawara, a rising star from Mali, gives great performances on the four songs she sings, especially on Lolo, her voice gliding goldenly over the trills and glissandos which are a signature of Malian (Berber?) style. There's a slight scratchiness to her voice which I find extremely alluring, and her debut album, Fatou, is apparently a must-hear. Erykah Badu is featured on three tracks, and her familiar voice is unexpected but a perfect fit. The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble impress at every appearance.

Rocket Juice and the Moon is also hard to classify, genre-wise. It's an African record, I suppose, and might be shelved in the World Music section of your local record store. When listening to any of the latest quote unquote world music records being released, there's usually enough hip-hop, soul, and jazz in there so that categorizing them is a worthless effort. This applies to R J and the M.

The record genuinely supports multiple listens. In fact, it probably won't be until the second or third turn that you are able to truly appreciate Flea's excellent contribution, or maybe even notice where Albarn fits in (excluding the two songs on which he provides the vocals). Tony Allen shines that brightly. And the record is that much fun. It's sunny. Perfect for a year in which March is seeing 80 degree days. I feel like we're all going to get out much more in 2012, our windows open more often, our skin tanned darker than in previous summers. In times like this, it's great to have a record which unashamedly celebrates life. It's hard to imagine who might be turned off by what these guys have made, and I suspect if it gets enough exposure, it will surely end up on plenty of Best Of 2012 year end lists. It's good.

March 22, 2012