If there is one musical word that provokes instant trepidation then it is the dreaded term ‘supergroup’. All too often supergroups end up being rather aimless and underwhelming. Britpop renaissance man Damon Albarn knows a thing or too about supergroups and how to make them that bit more interesting than usual, having gone there before with The Good, The Bad & The Queen, and his latest all-star collective is the intriguing Rocket Juice & The Moon.
This band, essentially the core of Albarn’s Africa Express project, comprises Albarn, Red Hot Chilli Peppers bassist Flea – bassist du jour for British musical auteurs looking to add a little funk to their new ventures, as he’s also a part of Thom Yorke‘s Atoms For Peace collective – and legendary Fela Kuti Afrobeat drummer and The Good, The Bad & The Queen luminary Tony Allen.
There are also appearances from Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara and her compatriot Cheick Tidiane Seck, Ghanaian rapper M.anifest, Erykah Badu and Albarn’s Honest Jons brass collective the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. This stellar cast have created a curious and, at times brilliant, crossover exploration of Afrobeat funk, and jazzy psychedelia.
This collection of tracks isn’t really an album, at least not in the traditional sense. The 18 tracks here are more of a loose-limbed collection of funk jams that evolve from each other in one almost continuous groove. Many tracks begin from a simple combination of bass riff and percussion beginning with the impossibly funky opening track 1-2-3-4-5-6. Flea and Allen develop an almost telepathic connection that provides a locked and funky rhythm that enables Albarn and his other collaborators to express their distinct talents.
Hey Shooter is the most obvious pop single here, reminiscent of a more organic Gorillaz and the smooth, poised soul vocal of Badu is a delight. Lolo is similarly joyous featuring some uplifting blasts of brass from the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and a lovely lilting vocal from Diawara. There is a distinct cosmic funk influence in some of the more expansive tracks, while Follow Fashion is a stunning piece of propulsive Afro-funk echoing some of the spacier funky moments on Talking Heads‘ Remain In Light, with every musician coalescing beautifully around the insistent funky rhythm.
As good as the best moments are here, the album is stymied slightly by a few too many meandering instrumental jams and over the course of its 18 tracks, causing its loose vibe to become ever so slightly wearing. It is telling that the one moment when Rocket Juice & The Moon embrace a traditional song structure and Albarn’s years of pop nous come to the fore is the album’s best track. Poison is utterly gorgeous; a sleepy, understated ballad that ranks up there with the very best Albarn ballads as he lovingly croons “Poison will only break your heart”.
The second half of the album features more experiments in funk, and you begin to form the impression that Rocket Juice & The Moon are aiming to carry on the ethos of legendary funk groups like Funkadelic. The groove is king here and Flea’s basslines are strikingly excellent throughout.
Rocket Juice & The Moon is certainly not a pop record, nor is it an impenetrable exercise in musical noodling. For the most part it is a joyous and uplifting album full of exuberance and an engaging effervescence. A little more focus and coherency would’ve made it a great record rather than a good one, but as an intriguing curiosity it is another excellent addition to Albarn’s ever-growing list of projects.