After two mediocre offerings in a row (following a five album run that rivals any artist of my lifetime), the count was full for Jay Kay and his band of acid-jazz funksters. Would this be the nail in their proverbial coffin? Had the cutting edge and cultural zeitgeist passed them by? Was JK packing stadiums the globe over on nostalgia alone? 2005’s Dynamite and 2010’s Rock Dust Light Star were met with stateside yawns, and though they were well-received around the world, the art simply didn’t resonate as it did during their decadent and demonstrative first decade.
Fact is, the jury was out on whether or not this funk odyssey had run its course. Kay and keyboardist/songwriter Matt Johnson decamped to the singers posh Chillington Studios on and off for several years, tweaking ideas and fleshing out concepts. The duo emerged from seclusion having crafted the new record Automaton, centered around a theme of post-millennial disconnect; a lack of authentic human communication and interaction has created a computerized cage for human beings.
Swinging second is title track “Automaton,” a curious number, obtuse Justice-like trappings unearth a dystopian future of the digitized and automated. Oh the horror! As a preview single, the music felt troubling- if adventurous; but in the context of the entire record, it clicks. This is an Orwellian-bent British Mantronix remixed for a new millenium, though no doubt an acquired, intelligent taste. The band follows with second single “Cloud 9”, a warm, boozy bass-lead jam that paints Jamiroquai by the numbers, floozy and flirtatious. A chunky hook and Rob Harris’ choice guitar save the tune from generic heap; the song’s resolution outro almost feels like victory.
“Superfresh” pulls a vocoder-page from the Daft Punk playbook, a nu-disco thumper, if a bit gimmicky. Given Kay’s propensity for high-brow commentary over the years, the sophomoric “Superfresh” lyrics feel beneath him, yet nobody rocks disco for it’s poetic justice. “Hot Property” also suffers from lowest common denominator linguistics, as well as providing yet another disco-fied beat. Jason Kay continues unapologetic, waxing nostalgic funky-town fever, Shaft-worthy string arrangements embellishing Ocean Yacht egocentricity.
At this juncture, after the first spins through a few tunes, this writer must admit- there was cause for concern, my internal alarms were ringing. Was another sound dying? Is this all going to be French proto-house, phoned-in dream pop, and four-on-the-floor disco workouts? Is this just an aging great taking the path of least resistance? Will we forever long for Stuart Zender to come home? Just at the very moment I started having those thoughts thought up, at the precipice of a permeating skepticism, a roller-skating jam bassline and massive Moog tones hijack “Hot Property”, and drummer of two-plus decades Derrick McKenzie pushes the team into a funkdafied crescendo. Don’t write their obituary just yet; indeed, there will be blood.
Jay Kay comes for the jugular with “Something About You,” his shiny, syrupy vocals atop quintessential Jamiroquai, an electro-funkin’ pop-groove recipe from the Funk Odyssey cookbook. Firmly planted in the Reagan 80’s with triggered toms and synth’d strings, inimitable JK croons tip-toe between perfectly-placed hand-claps and chicken scratch guitars. Jamiroquai may be gluten-free in 2017, but best believe they’re still rich with instrumentation and luscious, sing-along choruses, triumphant resolutions riding torrid outro jams.
Break out the backspins, cardboard and capoeira, as a positively filthy Fender bassline, and old-school hip-hop breakbeats announce “Nights Out in the Jungle,” the intergalactic Bronx park-jam gone Studio 54. Kay’s prophetic falsetto bemoans the media’s manipulation of his late friend, singer Amy Winehouse, and warns of his own “checkered past with the paparazzi.” Meanwhile, McKenzie’s crunkalogic drums propel Paul Turner’s ferocious low-end theory. Wait, what’s that, a turntablist scratching in a freaking chimpanzee?! Screeching surf-guitars serve up the Sriracha, long time assassin Sola Akingbola deploying hard-driving bongo-breaks; the bass and percussion shift unexpectedly into a fantastic flute-down, a tribalized section of rainforest B-boy. “Nights Out in the Jungle” is break-dancing naked on a runaway freight train; this is Jamiroquai 2.0 at their absolute zenith.
In a virtual instant, eerie sounds give way to ginormous, unabashed Yacht Rock; vivacious female vocals saunter above shimmering urges, delivering us to the office of one “Dr. Buzz.” Another cautionary tale, this of urban blight and a morally-bankrupt Western culture, all the while doubling as the latest in JK’s canon of cannabis celebrations. A de-facto homage to Steely Dan, its AOR sensibility and biting, satirical edge betray an ostentatious energy; this is feelgood music to the core. Halfway through the gouda gluttony, while the “West is gettin’ so wild…” JK, McKenzie, and Turner stop on a dime, pivoting into future funk. The rhythm section brings the savagery, and Jay’s raw, weathered falsetto steers the squadron toward liberation. Swimming in sulty synth, a percussion break hints at full detonation; instead, like a silver surfer emerging the barrel, the band arrives back at the original “Dr. Buzz” motif. With that, a soaring sax solo dances within Moogs and Mary Janes, Harris’ wealthy axe-tone wails tubuler, and Automaton MVP Matt Johnson’s ARP swirls around McKenzie’s merciless metronome. “Dr. Buzz” is a classic twist in the Becker/Fagan tradition; and within it Jamiroquai has kicked down yet another door of perception, we can see their colors sprayed up on the wall.
“We Can Do It” visits familiar territories in vibe and geography, drifting along to Jamaican shores with panache, Motown-disco-ska straight out of the United Kingdom. A decidedly throwback jam, this song feels neither staid nor played. Super cruising down the home stretch, the reggae-vibes finally shine through as the “We Can Do It” fades into the ether.
Another spectral introduction belies an ambitious, mouth-watering half-time riddim; and rolling synth-bass thrusts the groove into steezy netherworlds.”Vitamin” is everything we always dreamt this Jamiroquai could be, and so much more. Twenty years ago, on “Do You Know Where You’re Coming From?” this krewe invented organic breakbeat in the band setting, only to solidify the blueprint on 1999’s “Planet Home.” “Vitamin” officially ups the ante all these years later, and takes the handoff to the freaking house. Nevermind that it’s a defiant kiss off to Jay Kay’s rumored demon albatross, and a firm F-You to a career filled with numerous naysayers and many a short shrift. Incorporating sizzling, ravenous rhythms, libidinous bottom end, and all things Space Cowboy, this is the iconic, trendsetting Jamiroquai we have loved for so long. Clearly, they’ve still got that magic touch; “Vitamin” is nothing short of an instant classic.
Jamiroquai. Automaton. Just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in.
Key Tracks: Vitamin, Nights Out in the Jungle, Dr. Buzz, Something About You