This debut showing from the team-up of Damon Albarn, Flea, and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen is surprisingly unambitious but solid and fun.
It's hard to read much about Rocket Juice & the Moon online without running into the oft-mentioned story of how they got their name -- it was the title given to the album's sleeve art by its creator, Lagotian artist Ogunajo Ademola. Damon Albarn, the prolific musical force behind Blur, Gorillaz, The Good, the Bad & the Queen, DRC Music, and, now, Rocket Juice & the Moon, saw the title and figured it would do for a band name, expressing distaste for the process of having to name yet another project. That's an impressive list of past work -- with not a clunker to be found -- and while Rocket Juice & the Moon probably won't be at the top of that list for most people, the album doesn't come close to disappointing, either. If seeing the line-up of people involved here (Albarn, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, and Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen) got you excited -- and, really, why else would you be here -- then it's a pretty safe bet that this album is worth buying for you. Which, when it comes to such "supergroup" line-ups of otherwise-successful people as these, doesn't happen nearly as often as it should.
As with his last release, the wonderfully groovy Kinshasa One Two by DRC Music, Albarn has relinquished his traditional frontman status and is in more of a curatorial/collaborative mode; apart from the track here or there that he sings on, it would be easy to have no idea that he were even involved -- though he does seem to have much more direct song-by-song involvement here than he did there, jumping in on a pretty regular basis with some wonderfully mangled keyboard lines. The real stars here, though, are Flea's trademark smooth, clean bass playing and Allen's expressive, insanely-groovy drumming. Albarn has a habit of surrounding himself with very talented people, and it pays off in spades here.
A number of guest vocalists show up, though a good half of the album, roughly, is composed of straight-up instrumental funk grooves. To a one, the guests acquit themselves well; Erykah Badu does her unmistakable thing on "Hey Shooter", and Damon Albarn damn near steals the show on "Poison", but most of the mic time and heavy lifting falls to relative unknowns Fatoumata Diawara and M.anifest, who respectively sing and rap perfectly respectably, even if neither feels like they get a truly star-making turn.
The instrumental tracks connecting these vocal pieces are frequently just as strong; it's easy to see how one could criticize the album for being somewhat formless or aimless at points, but that just feels like missing the point. The loose grooves and improvisational feel are what it's all about, and according to Albarn, most songs were recorded in one take. That's not hard to believe, given their at-times-abrupt beginnings and endings, or the way you can hear muffled conversation in the background if you listen carefully at certain points. But if you know what you're getting going in, that's wonderful. "Rotary Connection", in particular, thrives off its vibe-y structure, letting Allen lay down a tight rhythmic foundation as the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, Flea, and Albarn take turns jamming in the foreground. Yes, there's that word, "jamming", and if it's poison to your ears, then so be it, but Rocket Juice & the Moon avoids pretty much all of the pitfalls some associate with the word -- it's rare for a song to go on any longer than it needs to, so any fears of aimless noodling can be put to rest before going in.
In the end, this album feels just as Rocket Juice & the Moon described it themselves, in the various interviews they have given -- very talented people getting together to enjoy playing music. They had a lot of fun, they say, and it shows. It might be more of a record to listen to while doing something light then it is a record to sit and do a focused listen with every time, and the project may not nearly loom largest in any of its main members' respective catalogs, but it's still a great listen, and a great time.