Rocket Juice & the Moon is an album full of red herrings: First, there’s the pseudo-futuristic moniker, pointing toward ultramodern electronica instead of the only slightly progressive takes on West African funk and Afrobeat that permeate these 17 tracks. Then, on “Hey, Shooter!,” Erykah Badu insists that we should brace ourselves for a journey to the sun and beyond. In fact, we never come close to escaping our troposphere, settling solely and completely into the shapeless and formless jazz-funk grooves of Western Africa. The only exception to this rule is “Poison,” a jerky and jarring softer number that serves only as another red herring.
Given that Damon Albarn ranks among music’s premier sonic shapeshifters, it feels odd for him to be helming a project that sticks to one sound so rigidly. There’s nothing as unique as The Good, the Bad and the Queen here, and this new project is never as adventurous as Plastic Beach, which can make Rocket Juice & the Moon seem underwhelming and, ultimately, a very docile affair. That’s not to say the album isn’t a pleasant listen, but even the electronic flourishes of “Worries” and “The Unfadable” feel like accent marks and afterthoughts rather than the show-stopping and scene-stealing turns we’ve come to expect from the erstwhile Blur and Gorillaz frontman.
Perhaps the biggest compliment one can pay Rocket Juice & the Moon, though, is that it can be a very earnest and convincing take on West African funk. And were it not for his vocal contributions to “Poison” and “Benko,” it’s alarmingly easy to forget that it’s Albarn behind the mixing desk, constantly pulling the strings and tinkering with the genre’s formula ad infinitum. “Rotary Connection” and “Follow-Fashion” are the most straightforward forays into Afrobeat, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that they’re also the album’s elite cuts, proving that Albarn’s music can be rewarding even when he’s reverting to type.
And as with almost every one of his projects, Rocket Juice & the Moon proves that Albarn sure knows how to pick his supporting cast. Flea further attests to his mettle as a truly mesmeric bass player throughout, while Chicago’s avant-garde nonuplet Hypnotic Brass Ensemble mark each of their appearances (most notably on “Hey, Shooter” and “Lolo”) with brass work that is, fittingly, rather hypnotic. The collection of African MCs featured on the album are brilliant too, waxing lyrical with more accessible themes and vivid narratives than today’s crop of voguish rappers can muster between them.
Their presence is fleeting and intermittent, though, as is practically every feature on the album: Given the fact Albarn and company are aping Fela Kuti, these sprawling jams have a tendency to meander and snake off to some sun-kissed island where refrains and hooks, for better or for worse, are considered foreign tongues. Rocket Juice & the Moon is a sincere and charming homage to Afrobeat, one that provides a glut of alluring moments, if a shortage of truly memorable ones.