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 — since one of the team discovered them busking near the shop in Portobello Road, on his lunchbreak — with a second album for the label due in May… 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 — out March 26, 2012, on Honest Jon’s Records — 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 (witness the flurry of smart-phone film-clips uploaded in the days thereafter).
From the inaugural bars — that absurdly funky slice of instructional timekeeping, 1–2–3–4–5–6 — the liquid pulse of Fela Kuti’s classic recordings drives the action through a suite of 18 shape-shifting compositions. The greatest drummer in the world has never sounded so good as he does here. His intricate cross-patterns jostle and lock with Flea’s nimble, rumbling bass riffs. Joined by Seck on There and Extinguished — ‘when you dispose of something burning, be sure it’s out’ — Albarn’s keyboards spray synth fusillades up top, over, and under… splicing into the mess of wires running between the freaked Afro-disco of William Onyeabor and the space-jazz-moog of Sun Ra. The HBE brings extra intensity and drama to Leave-Taking — likewise Flea’s trumpet to Rotary Connection — teasing out the haunting melody coiled in the mix.
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.
The lovely ballad, Poison, is bittersweet and ruminative: ‘If you’re looking for love, beware the signs / They will paralyze you one by one / Poison, it will only break your heart.’ Down-tempo and dubby, Check Out and Worries amplify the range of styles and moods. And by the time of Fatherless — a chugging Afro blues that evokes John Lee Hooker lost in Lagos, one gets the sneaking suspicion there’s very little outside the reach of this collective’s inventive musical grasp.
There is, in fact, a palpable openness pervading Rocket Juice & The Moon — the sense of a limber willingness to follow creative impulse — right down to how the group acquired its name. When Ogunajo Ademola — the Lagotian commissioned to do the album’s cover artwork — dubbed his submission ‘Rocket Juice & The Moon’, it quickly morphed into the formal name of the project, like trying to hold onto mercury.
Surely, the stars above also approved.
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