[27 February 2012]
Even before popping up on David Simon’s post-Wire televised love letter to post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme, Galactic were some of the most visible of the Crescent City’s musical ambassadors. Their heavy touring schedule and string of critically acclaimed albums that their name popped up frequently enough, mentioned in the same breath as other road-hardened nu-jazz stalwarts like Medeski, Martin, & Wood, Benevento Russo Duo, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Their latest album, Carnivale Electricos is an apt summary of the band’s sound—hard-grooving New Orleans funk combined with electronics lifted from hip-hop, electronica and house music. The band set out to make a Mardi Gras concept album—not necessarily one structured around a linear narrative, but a loose collection of songs covering the elements of New Orleans’ most essential holiday.
The band certainly comes out swinging, opening with “Ha Di Ka”, which features Big Chief Juan Pardo and the Golden Comanche layering Mardis Gras Indian chants over Galactic’s stuttering funk groove. But this is Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias—the vocals are drenched in echo and reverb, ending up sounding like a house music sample, and saxophonist Ben Ellman’s saxophone solo is processed to sounding like an electric guitar.
The band also heads further south, covering Sergio Mendes’ “Magalenha” with a relentless drive, aided by New Orleans’ own samba school, Samba Casa. The clattering percussion of Brazilian samba is at the fore on the track, proving that, no matter how much they might add to the source material, Galactic is reverent of the music they’re paying homage to.
It would hardly be a Carnivale album without some members of New Orleans’ first family of funk showing up, and so the addition of Cyril and Ivan Neville to “Out in the Street” is both expected and welcome. The song is a fine homage to the loose, jammy funk the Neville family practically patented in New Orleans in the 1960s. New Orleans rappers Mannie Fresh and Mystikal are on deck for “Move Fast”, a track that sounds less like New Orleans and more like early ‘90s West Coast rap—and I mean that as a compliment.
“Julou” and “Guero Bounce” are both instrumentals that hover around the minute mark, and they’re showcases for Galactic’s dexterity more than any severe degree of songwriting. “Julou” is notable for Stanton Moore’s incredibly agile drumming, and “Guero Bounce” marries South American rhythms with a New Orleans shuffle beat.
“Karate” features the Kipp Renaissance High School Marching Band, and it’s a heavy one. It’s heavy in the way that only a massive, brass-driven band can be, but it’s nimble and joyous nonetheless. The kids prove that they’re more than able to take on the band’s arrangements, and everyone, down to the tubas, swings hard.
On an album dedicated to the riotous atmosphere of Carnivale, it’s funny that the most effective track should be dedicated to the bleary “Ash Wednesday Sunrise.” Galactic is known for playing until the sun comes up during their Mardi Gras shows, and so the album’s closing track must be conjure up some deep memories for them—organist Rich Vogel turns in a searing solo and the band navigates the tune’s abrupt transitions with ease and grace.
I’m still not entirely sold on Galactic’s sound: I remain unconvinced that New Orleans funk and electronic elements are the best bedfellows. And regrettably, Carnivale Electricos seems to bear my opinion out. The band hasn’t figured out a way to reliably integrate all of the aspects of their sound in a compelling way, and so half the time, they seem content to just groove away for minutes at a clip without really developing anything stirring, be it a melody or a memorable solo. Granted, there are exceptions, but that’s always been the case with Galactic—every album has several great songs and a lot of them aren’t so great.
But that’s really secondary to the band’s entire raison d’être. They’re not making Sgt. Pepper’s. They’re not aiming for the top of the charts. Galactic is first and foremost a live band, and that’s how they should be experienced—sweating, grooving, and playing until dawn. You owe it to yourself.