Rating: 3.75/5Of late, the term supergroup is bandied about so carelessly and without irony to describe groups so obviously not super, that it seems an insufficient descriptor of Rocket Juice and the Moon. It gets applied to bands comprised of indie-rockers in middling other bands, collaborations and untested new assemblies of familiar names. Shouldn’t a supergroup meet certain standards of recognizability and quality? If so, Rocket Juice and the Moon are an essential supergroup and the Monsters of Folk are a hipster’s best impression of one. (And I like the Monsters of Folk!)
The group’s self-titled album cements an Afrobeat project that was many years in development for Damon Albarn, Tony Allen and Flea. It combines the three renowned innovators in their respective genres with an assortment of African and African-American vocalists to produce a soulful and occasionally trippy hour of music. Truly, I can find no fault with Allen’s infectious beats or with Flea’s vibrant bass riffs. Both are masters who revel in their collaboration, slinging riffs and rhythms with glee. This game of tag scrambles beneath Albarn’s indie-wise, simmering guitar riffs and growling synths. It’s a modern base for Erykah Badu’s songbird voice and M.anifest’s marveling rhymes. If not for its understatement and Flea’s strutting bass feature, with its blend of R&B and robotic Auto-Tune, Badu’s “Hey, Shooter” could have fit in on Janelle Monae’s 2010 album The ArchAndroid. M.anifest stands out for his ability to rhyme precisely in time with Allen’s unpredictable beats, a delight when lyricists as rhythmically creative as Emily Dickinson dominate popular music.
Though best known as a frontman, Albarn only sings on just two of the 18 tracks, both of them more leisurely than any others. He can throw a precise aural punch with a horn or synth—indeed, his inventive multi-instrumental experimentation is as key to the ensemble’s success as Flea’s bass or Allen’s drum kit—but Albarn cannot seem to energize his decaf voice. Independently, his tracks are pleasantly hazy; as part of the whole, they lack the energy of songs featuring M.anifest, Badu or Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. When you demand 52 minutes of your listeners, the sleepers feel perhaps sleepier than they truly are.
The album is certainly front-loaded, with the latter half being quick cuts that are largely instrumental, if that’s your bag. Still, as a unified work, this structure raises questions like why is this so long and why hasn’t anyone sang in 10 minutes? Further questions of self-indulgence arise. Each of these artists has earned his right to indulge and if the quantity of work is in greater question than the quality, it is the listener’s duty to fast-forward through a track or two. Though the album is not flawless, it is intriguing and expertly crafted, multilingual and international, and the sort of challenge seldom undertaken and even less often done so successfully.