Rocket Juice & the Moon is the collaborative work between Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass and the drumming of funk legend Tony Allen. These three musicians may seem like a strange pairing but it makes perfect sense for the kind of music they are creating; Rocket Juice is primarily a West African funk group, the musicians behind it being almost a non-factor. The teamwork works because Allen is regarded as a founder of Afro-beat, Flea has constantly swapped styles on his bass over the years and Albarn has spent time in Congo and Mali working with African musicians on DRC Music and Mali Music.
The laundry list of artists Albarn has worked with is unreal. It seems like every year he picks a slew of eccentric musicians and combines them for some elaborate project. Albarn usually acts as the director with the focused vision of how the body of work should turn out but on Rocket Juice & the Moon he takes a backseat to Allen and Flea. Really, Allen is the leader; the songs are driven by the groovy drums, keeping the beats complex and intricate but soft and laid-back. Allen brings afro-beat effortlessly, knowing exactly how much space to fill and what a song needs.
Each of these guys could be showoffs and steal the spotlight but that isn’t what this album is about. Flea goes along with Allen’s drumming, creating some really funky riffs but he isn’t out of control crazy like the days of RHCP’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Albarn’s signature sound on the guitar and keys is virtually nonexistent and he only sings on “Poison,” an outlier that sounds like it could have came from Blur’s early Brit-Pop days. These guys are playing a modest role, putting their egos on the shelf and letting the feel-good funk ride out.
Herein lies the problem of Rocket Juice & the Moon; in its lack of ambition there is a lack of excitement. With eighteen tracks most songs are under three minutes, a constraining time extent unallowing of any sort of breakout jam. Many of these songs are regulated to filler spots and will go on forgotten. If they had fewer tracks but longer songs they could have solved this problem by giving more opportunity for songs to stand out. I know the musicians aren’t trying to show themselves but are the songs trying to do the same? The most memorable tracks are the ones with guest musicians. When M. anifest comes in on “Lolo” and “The Unfadable” and delivers a jaw jacking rap it is a powerful moment. Erykah Badu croons on “Hey, Shooter” and Cheick Tidiane Seck has an ultimate jazzy moment on “Extinguished.” And while most of the songs without guest musicians are enjoyable you will be lucky if you remember any of their names.
There is something helpful when famous musicians venture into genres out of their comfort zone. With Rocket Juice & the Moon followers of Albarn or Flea can gain some understanding of Afro-beat from the safety of their idols. Rocket Juice & the Moon is worthwhile, being fun, easy-going and non-demanding. However, a listener needs to be aware of what they’re getting themselves into and in the mood for it as Rocket Juice stays true to West African funk music.