Monday, November 7, 2011
Galactic - Ruckus
Nothing earth-shattering this morning; just some kick-ass funky jams from the group I've seen live the most times--New Orleans' Galactic. Though I've lost track of them a little since their singer Theryl "Houseman" De'Clouet departed, Galactic has long been a source of a lot of listening pleasure. Their jams blend funk and heavier Hendrix-like guitar rock with some formidable jazz chops on the part of reed man Ben Ellman, keyboardist Richard Vogel and drummer Stanton Moore. While they'd been including vocals since their first album, most of their early releases mimicked their live shows, with vocal tunes interspersed with longer instrumentals, some of which were attempts to re-create the band's sense of energy and build-up that makes their live shows so exciting. On 2003's Ruckus, though, the group made a concerted effort to hone their pop instincts, hiring hip-hop producer Dan the Automator, enlisting the editorial aid of a couple of outside songwriters, upping the number of vocal tracks, and reigning in the run-time of the instrumentals. The result, in my opinion, is far and away their tightest and most cohesive album.
The biggest immediate difference here is that Stanton Moore's drum sound--always a defining element of the band's sound--has been amped even more, and it's also a lot less jazzy. A heaviness of the low midrange is also more apparent, with Jeff Raines' guitar and Rich Vogel's synths, organ and clavinette often doubling to give the songs a thick backbone. While some of the vocal tunes could fit comfortably in the context of earlier Galactic albums (the pounding unison of "All Behind You Now," the clean funky riffing of "Never Called You Crazy,"), the band really explores some new territory in some songs, making use of softer, more soulful sounds (except for the drums of course) and Houseman's pedigree on the sultry "Paint," the downright poppy "Uptown Odyssey" and the left-field General Public cover, "Tenderness." In other places the band manages to conjure some unforeseen magic by weaving brief vocal passages with mostly instrumental music--"Kid Kenner" is electronic-tinged, trading between ridiculously heavy drum loops and an ethereal vocal section, while "The Beast" merges Moore's weighty drums with the guitar for one of the heaviest beats of the album while the mysterious vocal sort of merges with the groove like an incantation. They even manage something really strange on the awesome "Gypsy Fade," one of the most interesting songs of their discography--sort of a funk dirge, where the bittersweet harmonica and acoustic guitar somehow coexist with heavy overdrive and synth sounds.
I remember being a little disappointed in the instrumentals when I first bought this album at the time of its release--where was the loose jazzy element that made some of their earlier stuff so epic? The drum sound, though heavy and impressive, seemed a little too rigid and repetitive, and the songs hardly have any soloing at all. Needless to say, repeated listens made it apparent that these instrumentals aren't about jamming, but about melody and pop structure. For the most part, they succeed--"Bongo Joe" blends samples and an eastern melody to great effect, "Mercamon" plays with different textures and riff-based melodies, and "The Moil" has got to be one of the hottest, most exciting songs in the band's entire discography, whereas "Doomed" is a little vacant in the melody department and seems a little superfluous in the wake of the valedictory "All Behind You Now." Even when not much melody is happening, though, the beat is difficult to deny--it's obviously one of the best things Ruckus has going for it, and it's possible to just feel the drums for the album's duration and still be highly entertained. My only other complaint is that the lyrics are mostly pretty superficial (the wordplay on "Tenderness" easily trumps anything the band wrote here), but it's not like Galactic was ever about deep messages or wordcraft, and neither is most pop music!
It's hard to believe this album is eight years old, and that Houseman departed the group for health reasons only a month or so after its release. While the purpose of this recording doesn't really match the loose jamming that live Galactic past and present continues to purvey, the songs and overall sound here is so fresh, tight and catchy it's hard to believe that the album didn't make a bigger splash for the band and they never tried to follow up on the template it set. I suppose nonstop touring has always been Galactic's bread-and-butter and that albums have been more of a begrudging necessity. To me, though, this unrepresentative disc still stands as their best studio achievement, not to mention a great reminder of how much can be gained from concentrating on focus and brevity.
Get it here.