They say too many chefs spoil the broth, but this is a little ridiculous. Boasting more star power than a socially impaired college freshman mastering Rock Band 2, N.A.S.A.’s The Spirit of Apollo is one part genius and nine parts overkill. I could spend fully five minutes regurgitating the bi-continental duo’s impressive buddy list for your reading pleasure, but ultimately the heaping up of talents—so unlike rocket science—bears no relationship to the laws of arithmetic.
The obvious complaint will be that some of the artists involved are either underused or overused. I challenge anyone, for instance, to point out to me what it is that Seu Jorge contributes musically to “Money”. By the same token, it’s arguable whether David Byrne actually warrants his two prominent cameos (I personally think one would’ve been just plenty). Still, the point of this album is the contrivance of a virtual community—in this case N.A.S.A. stands for North America South America—and it does provide at least a semblance of this.
Roughly following the blueprint of DJ Shadow’s prototypical U.N.K.L.E., The Spirit of Apollo works well because it isn’t too strict about its message. This is a “positive” record in the foggiest sense of the word, but what it lacks in status as essential listening it half makes up for in simple grooves. If nothing else, heads will bob.
This is the record’s greatest consistency: that the Latin-infused electro-rhythms are usually right on point. The better tracks differentiate themselves with genuine hooks. “Strange Enough” features one of Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s final performances on record coupled with a killer chorus from Karen O. Considering ODB’s lyrical tropes, the subject matter fittingly hovers around the paranoia of her words, “Why do these things hurt me? / I’m strange enough to change / Ya’ll use these tools and then pervert me / Deranged enough to change.” It’s an inspired pairing, one that rises above the novelty of the record’s relentless eclecticism.
Without a doubt, “Whatchadoin?”—dominated by M.I.A.—is the strongest cut. Another spine-searing bit of pop perfection, it’s a Double Dutch anthem hindered by a couple of weak rap verses from Spank Rock. Its strength is in its simplicity, a sticky-lipped sing along that defines the record’s sound system appeal. The other tracks, however, fade with repeat plays. “Spacious Thoughts” is a doomed balancing act: Tom Waits rises too high, sinking Kool Keith. Alternatively, “Gifted”, which features Kanye West, Santogold, and Lykke Li is consummate crap.
All in all, The Spirit of Apollo makes its best impressions at astronomical volumes. It’s a party record with random hints of sci-fi. The challenges, though, of producing a truly inventive, kinetic collaboration with so many big names must have been massive—the expression “like a kid in a candy store” comes to mind—and N.A.S.A. shows no particular brilliance on this outing. Instead, it’s a merely competent experiment: a jigsaw forced together in a curious image which doesn’t quite hold.