Not that they were ever bosom buddies or anything, but it shows how far Damon Albarn and Thom Yorke’s artistic obsessions have diverged when the main thing linking them now is a raisin-faced Los Angeleno best known for playing bass in a manner suggestive of having a big old wank. This man, of course, is Flea – Red Hot Chili Pepper and plank-spanker-for-hire, currently lending his talents to Yorke’s Atoms For Peace and Albarn’s Rocket Juice & The Moon.
As awful as Flea is – and let’s be clear: he has done some abhorrently awful things – it is sort of understandable why Albarn might wish to procure his services. Proficiency, for British bass players, has often meant the skill of following the guitarist and smoking a fag at the same time. American bassists seem more comfortable with a bit of showiness; technique is not such a dirty word. Add drummer Tony Allen – of The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Fela Kuti’s ’70s ensembles – and you have a trio capable of recreating the sunny, flowing grooves of classic Afro-funk and highlife.
Perhaps the issue with ‘Rocket Juice & The Moon’ is that it never gets far beyond this noble starting point. ‘Hey, Shooter’, with its strident horns and purred Erykah Badu vocal, rolls by deliciously, and the skittering ‘Follow-Fashion’ makes neat contrast of its guests, Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara and Ghanian rapper M.anifest. But Albarn’s presence is slight.
Cup an ear on ‘Rotary Connection’ and you may hear him plaintively echo a horn line. He croons a little on ‘Benko’. It’s only on plangent heartbreak ballad ‘Poison’ that he really brings his vocals to bear. Of course, we know better than to approach an Albarn project with a “Wot, no ‘Parklife’?” But his best work has cheek, wit and a smart-alecky desire to shake things up. All this reverence doesn’t really suit him.