[11 February 2010]
In the world of jam bands, Galactic has always proven itself to be a bit of an anomaly. Where other groups seemed content to recycle the same tired blues riffs and neo-psychedelic meanderings, Galactic has always shown a willingness to experiment, to incorporate humor and new musical styles into its cornbread-and-whipped-butter brand of jazzyfunkypop. Where other groups increasingly featured musicians with bloated egos engaging in self-indulgent solo theatrics, the members of Galactic have always proven themselves to be slaves to the groove, never putting individual expression above the integrity of the tune. And where other groups resigned themselves to being mainstays on the frat party circuit, Galactic always seemed to be a band of the people, regularly collaborating with gospel divas and street musicians and playing small blues clubs.
It’s not much of a surprise, then, given Galactic’s freewheeling reputation, to find the band separating itself even further from its jam band peers, altering its sound and style yet again, on its latest release, the enjoyable Ya-Ka-May. As the album title, a reference to an Afro-Orleanian soup-like culinary delicacy, suggests, this release is the most playful and carefree collection of tunes in Galactic’s impressive oeuvre. For the most part, it finds the band building on its previous release, the hip-hop-heavy From the Corner to the Block, with a set of party songs strongly influenced by the bounce rap sound of the band’s New Orleans home.
The Galactic of the band’s first two albums, with its live instrumentation and free-form improv jams chock full of Dixieland funk and jazzy rock, is all but gone. Also absent is the smooth groove band, with its soul crooning and R&B posturing, evident on the album Ruckus. In its place we’ve got a lean, mean beat machine, playing a buzzy, swaggering brand of electro-ghetto-funk and Southern hip-hop—with horns and programmed samples. Immediate musical landmarks include the Roots, Black Milk, Major Lazer, and Dam-Funk. Jam band purists may find this change too much to handle. Those with a sense of adventure and an appreciation for hip-hop break beats will discover much to love in Ya-Ka-May. You’ll still find many of the elements that made Galactic jam band legends: Stanton Moore’s polyrhythmic stick work, Ben Ellman’s Motown horn accompaniments, and Jeff Raines’ sizzling electric guitar lines. It’s just that these elements are atmospheric and secondary to the Beat.
“Friends of Science”, the absurd, minute-long opening track on Ya-Ka-May, sets a playful, party tone for the album. As the professorial voice claims: “You’re going to see me tonight as you have never seen me before / What we have here is just like something you may have at home / This can take from a section of brain that gives talent / And can actually take that talent and put it into the brain of another person.” In Ya-Ka-May‘s case, the musicians of Galactic borrow heavily from the hip-hop world and from their fellow New Orleans collaborators—Rebirth Brass Band, Irma Thomas, Big Chief Bo Dollis, and Allen Toussaint—to concoct a soul stew of sounds that’s entirely their own.
“Boe Money”, the first proper song on the album, is an uptempo dancehall jam, anchored by pounding bass drum and the bleating horns of the Rebirth Brass Band. Its only vocals are the classic hip-hop chants of “Go! Go!” between beats. “Double It” is more of the same, an energetic dancehall groove with the high-pitched off-the-beat tinks and booming bass characteristic of bounce and the rapping of NOLA bounce star Big Freedia. On “Heart of Steel”, Galactic offers a new take on the R&B present in the band’s previous albums. This time around Louisiana soul legend Irma Thomas leads the way with a bluesy brand of vocal crooning that borders on rap over harp and hand claps.
Even though Galactic obviously dived head first into its new hip-hop aesthetic, it’s clear that the band is doing so with a big ole smirk. “Katey vs. Nobby”, with its trashcan drums, distorted bass groove, and bratty rapping, would sound at home on the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill. “Bacchus”, which marries Allen Toussaint’s bluesy piano fills with fuzzy braggadocio-heavy rapping and Moore’s schizophrenic percussive rolls, is the crazy love child of Gil Scott Heron and Prince. “Do It Again”, featuring a “Hey muthafucker! Hey muthafucker! Hey!” intro, is Galactic, classy jam band progenitor, at its most ironic. Despite proving able technicians of bounce, Galactic is still at its best when it lets its jazz spirit loose. On “Cineramascope” and “You Don’t Know”, the band shows off its instrumental improv chops with wailing Dixieland-esque fills and solos.
In all of the promotional materials for Ya-Ka-May, as with Galactic’s other releases, it mentions that this album is a quintessential New Orleans record. And while Ya-Ka-May is certainly the result of collaboration between a number of important Crescent City artists from various genres and generations, it is by no means your daddy’s New Orleans record. Perhaps what makes Ya-Ka-May a record of and about the Big Easy is Galactic’s continual willingness to forge new musical terrain, beyond the usual jam band fare, and have a blast in the process.