Dan the Automator dressed up Galactic real nice, but he should have thought twice before taking them out. He polished the New Orleans funksters’ new record Ruckus to a shimmering veneer. Too bad Galactic, in their half-hearted effort to develop their “songwriting” skills, wasted the Automator’s skills on a turd.
OK, that’s harsh. I won’t deny there are chunks of solid material in the record. When the band sticks to their guns, they take that ineffable New Orleans alchemy places it has never been before. They are the vanguard of Big Easy funk when they want to be, and this album certainly grooves. But these songs are all over the place. To find your way to anything more than a good groove, you have to step through piles of hokey pop songs, riffarific Led Kravitz indulgences, and trite blues rock.
There is no shortage of groove on this record. If you stripped away everything but the rhythm section (plus Dan the Automator’s sinister accoutrements), you could listen happily all the way through as if it was a Meters record. Stanton Moore (drums) and Robert Mercurio (bass), two highly decorated soldiers of the New Orleans rhythm squadron, march dauntlessly from the opening stank of “Bittersweet” all the way through to the creepy grooves and neck-snapping breakdowns of “Doomed.” Richard Vogel’s trickly electric piano and swampy Hammond organ bounce and flip off the trampoline that is Jeff Raines’s chunky, Frusciante-flavored funk guitar work. If you’ve ever seen Galactic play live in New Orleans, you know that this recipe keeps for hours on end.
Unfortunately, they’ve crammed this smorgasbord into cramped, pop-sized servings, and dumped upon it a heap of gaudy garnish. “Bittersweet” starts the album off with a boom, but the groove is ruined by Ben Ellman’s hackneyed, trite baritone sax riff. On “Beast,” Moore and Mercurio are blown aside as Ellman wastes his breath matching Raines’s chunky one note funk runs with bluesy harmonica riffs. And then there’s the band’s server, Houseman.
Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet is a captivating performer with a powerful R&B voice. But on Ruckus, he’s margarine where he could have been butter. His beautiful voice is wasted on half-assed blues-rock singing that sounds like a teenager trying to come up with lyrics to his first original song. And the lyrics are mere parsley, all telegraphed rhymes and whispered David Lee Rothian exhortations to “ease on down” and such.
The band pulls through nicely on some tracks. “Bongo Joe” sets a mood of romance and danger with its slinky groove, acoustic guitar, and a perfect mix of organ and melodica. Three tracks — “Mercamon,” “Kid Kenner,” and “Doomed” — mine the futuristic, swamp-industrial funk pioneered by Medeski Martin and Wood with Scotty Hard at the boards. What makes these songs shine is their departure from the uncomfortable formula used on all the other tracks.
After a complete listen, the album is not so much a Ruckus as it is a hullabaloo, or perhaps a quibble. It really does sound cool, as most jam-band music does. In fact, you can picture the band high-fiving in the studio when a neato bleep echoes across the speakers or Moore breathes new life into a song with one of his masterfully syncopated breakdowns. But it just doesn’t connect with the listener. They spent too much time spicing it up and not enough time letting it simmer. It’s all icing and no cake. Galactic ought to leave the blues-rock barbeques to Blues Traveler and their ilk, and concentrate on what they do best: imitating Medeski Martin and Wood.
All swipes aside, though, I still highly recommend seeing them live in New Orleans. After that experience, this album is much easier to dismiss.