[14 January 2007]
Forgive yourself for not knowing exactly who or what Jamiroquai is—at least if you‘re an American. Like artists ranging from Cliff Richard to Robbie Williams, Jamiroquai (the guy and the band) are a British phenomenon, with hit singles and albums stretching back almost a decade and a half. Despite a pair of American Grammy awards, these guys have really only registered the national radar screen exactly two times. There was the crazy video for “Virtual Insanity”, in which lead singer Jay Kay sang in a room that had trouble staying in one place. The second was the belated placement of a minor hit in the cult classic comedy Napoleon Dynamite. Otherwise, you probably just know Jamiroquai as the dude with the funny hats. You probably can’t say it correctly, either.
Well, never fear, music listener! Even though an album like High Times: Singles 1992-2006 makes perfect sense overseas (actually, it probably should have arrived a hell of a lot sooner), it’s a bit of a head scratcher on these shores—a greatest hits album by a band that really only had one or two hits. Nevertheless, considering the wildly inconsistent content of their six studio albums, this is a welcome sampler for anyone who wants the hit(s) without having to sit through the chaff.
One thing’s for sure, though, these guys listened to a LOT of late ‘70s/early ‘80s disco and post-disco dance music. I daresay Jay and Co. have probably burned through five or six copies of Off the Wall. While early Jamiroquai press made the absolutely laughable comparison to Stevie Wonder (almost as insulting as trying to pass this funk band off as “alternative”), you can tell that these folks listened to a lot of Heatwave and Earth, Wind & Fire back in the day. The band deserves props for keeping a live-band funk sound in circulation, something very few American soul bands even do anymore. Originally branded part of the same “acid jazz” scene that spawned The Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai has outlasted all of their contemporaries, with only subtle variances in their general sound.
That sound is never less than danceable, and they’ve been able to pull quite a few great singles out of their (big, furry) hats. The band’s debut, “When You Gonna Learn”, is still one of their freshest tunes. Hell, how many danceable tunes do you know that feature a freakin’ didgeridoo? Considering how much I loathe modern dance music, it was great just to hear something with a melody and live drums and bass. Kay’s whiny, feminine voice and hippy-dippy lyrics (at least initially) managed to skirt the fine line between “precious” and annoying.
That disco groove is the linchpin of this album, and although the beats rarely slow down (the strangely mellow “Space Cowboy” being one of a few exceptions), the band actually fared best when they added a bit of a different element to their sound. The smooth flow of “Virtual Insanity” recalls a jazzier sort of funk, while songs like “Deeper Underground” and the recent “Feels Just Like It Should”—which you are now hearing 15 times a day as a cell-phone commercial—add a bit of a rock edge to the proceedings. “Underground”, featured on the surprisingly solid soundtrack to 1998’s forgettable Godzilla remake, has a sinister, claustrophobic sound that resulted in the band’s second best musical moment.
While all of the songs on this compilation (including two decent new tracks, “Runaway“ and “Radio“) are danceable, nothing makes you wanna shake your groove thing as much as “Canned Heat”. Even though I was a toddler during the disco era, I’ve soaked up enough of the music to know that had this song been released 20 years earlier, it would have been a huge hit . The thumping groove, soaring strings and indelible hook are perfect for absolutely losing yourself on the dance floor—even if memories of the dance scene in Napoleon Dynamite featuring this song is still rattling around in your head.
Since Jamiroquai’s albums tend to meander a bit, High Times is a godsend. Whether you’re entertaining guests at a house party or bustin’ a groove while watching the dishes, the band’s danceable sound is best served on this compilation. And, if it leads you to discover any of the soul/funk bands that Jay Kay and co. were influenced by, well… that’s even more of a good thing.