Rocket Juice & The Moon - Rocket Juice & the Moon - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Rocket Juice & The Moon - Rocket Juice & the Moon

by Aidan Rylatt Rating:6.5 Release Date:2012-03-26

When Damon Albarn announced last year that he was forming yet another band, few eyebrows could have been raised. What did cause some surprise, however, was that one of the members was Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist Flea, a man whose musical inspiration occasionally seems to consist solely of the slap-bass soundtrack to Seinfeld.

Imagine for a minute that Alex James turned down the summer Blur reunion, announcing that he wanted to spend more time on the farm and out of the limelight (admittedly a scenario about as likely as his chum Jeremy Clarkson starting up a column in Socialist Worker). If Flea was announced as his replacement the inevitable outrage would be perfectly justified. But this isn't that kind of project - the overriding musical styles of Rocket Juice & the Moon are Afrobeat and funk. Looked at in this light, the pairing of Flea with ex-Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen actually starts to look rather intriguing.

One thing's for sure - Rocket Juice & the Moon provides much more scope for Allen to show off his considerable drumming talent than his role in another of Albarn's groups, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, did (brilliant as that album was). When Rocket Juice & the Moon works it can be fantastic. The laid back shuffle of 'Chop Up' is a highlight, as is 'Benko', featuring Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara swapping lines with Albarn, which (appropriately enough) would have fitted right in on his excellent 2002 album Mali Music. Albarn's only centre-stage vocal comes on 'Poison', a song which doesn't particularly fit with the style of the rest of the album, although Albarn in 'gently wistful' mode is welcome anytime.

The best moments are when the nine-piece brass collective Hypnotic Brass Ensemble crop up. Albarn previously used them to power along Mos Def's rapping on Gorillaz track 'Sweepstakes', one of that album's highlights too. Here, they add thrust to 'Lolo' which again features Diawara, this time in collaboration with Ghanaian rapper M.anifest as he reflects on having "always been a son, now I'm a dad", and ruminates on what the future may bring: "In my time there's been iPod's and iPad's/ In his time will there be saucers and flying cabs?"

It may sound a little clichéd on paper, but on record it comes across as gently affecting. 'Hey, Shooter' is the album's best track, bringing together all the things that work about the album: Flea and Allen locked into a funk groove, a stomping backing tune courtesy of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, and a guest-spot from Erykah Badu, who delivers a (admittedly slightly more tuneful) female take on the minimal, half-sung/half-rapped vocals Albarn tends to use for Gorillaz.

What baffles, then, is why Albarn didn't decide to either sing more himself or employ more guests to sing (and, let's face it, the man who can pull in Lou Reed, Shaun Ryder, Bobby Womack, Mark E Smith, Snoop Dogg and half of The Clash to guest on his songs is hardly short of options). Of the 18 songs here, eight are instrumentals. This sometimes leads to the feeling of listening to a soundtrack to some long-lost 70s film; the moments we get where Flea is in his full-on slap-bass element ('Rotary Connection'), or gently noodling away at the bass over non-descript drums from Allen ('Night Watch', 'Forward Sleep') sound like they're missing the visuals that justify their existence - because at present they fade from memory as soon as they've finished.

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Fatoumata Diawara reflected on her guest-spots on Rocket Juice & the Moon, saying: "It's a new experience. You keep your traditional voices, but you can also communicate with a different style: hip hop, soul, electronic music. You can adapt". This could easily be applied more broadly to Albarn's career in general; since the last Blur album he seems to have made it his mission to try his hand at as many different genres of music as possible, with as many different musicians as he can get.

So while Rocket Juice & the Moon is no unqualified success, Albarn deserves praise for continuously pushing himself forward, where some of his contemporaries are happy not to bother. Another album with Blur, Gorillaz or The Good, the Bad & the Queen would be preferable to him revisiting Rocket Juice & the Moon for the foreseeable future, although before then there'll be the studio album of the songs used in his opera, Dr. Dee, and the latest album from Bobby Womack, produced by Albarn, and guest-starring Lana Del Rey.

Rocket Juice & the Moon could have been much better with a few of the instrumentals cut out, or with an additional couple of songs with vocals to replace the worst of them. As it is, this is unlikely to be anyone's favourite Damon Albarn record, but, while we wait for where on earth Albarn ends up next, the handful of great songs here will do nicely.

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