You wouldn’t believe how easy of a time I have ignoring the whole jam-band sub-universe. I have such an easy time ignoring it, in fact, that even the bands in that whole universe who don’t actually jam don’t generally show up on my radar. Up until a few days ago, I knew basically nothing about the New Orleans funk band Galactic other than that they sometimes play shows Talib Kweli types. I think I actually worked the door at one of their shows once, about seven years ago, but I don’t remember paying any attention to their music. So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that they keep the noodling to a minimum; none of the songs on From the Corner to the Block, their new album, is more than five minutes long. In fact, their rippling funk comes in such discrete and precise pieces that I find myself wishing they’d actually jam more; the compressed sterility of their production is probably the biggest obstacle preventing them from achieving their evident goal and becoming the Meters. Still, as goals go, becoming the Meters isn’t too bad. It’s something of a pleasant shock to learn that one band in the whole Jammy axis gives a damn about quaint notions like rhythm and song-structure. I probably would’ve never bothered to discover Galactic’s low-simmer swagger if not for the smart gimmick behind From the Corner to the Block. According to their bio, the album is Galactic’s first since the band parted ways with vocalist Theryl DeClouet and became an instrumental unit three years ago, and they’ve made the exceedingly sane decision to replace him with a gang of rappers. If a jam-band is trying to get me to notice them, hiring a whole bunch of rappers is a pretty good way to go.
Most of the guests on From the Corner to the Block come from indie-rap, a subculture that’s found occasional common ground with the jam-band world for a while now. Galactic were smart in making their connections, choosing rappers that mesh really well with their whole organic stomp: Boots Riley, Mr. Lif, the core Quannum guys. More often than not, the rappers and the musicians find a good chemistry. Lyrics Born’s singsong wheeze works beautifully on straight-up funk tracks anyway, and his vocal on album-opener “I Got It (What You Need)” only barely qualifies as rap. On “…And I’m Out,” Mr. Lif hits the shuffling downbeats so precisely that he might as well be singing, even if nearly all the melody in his vocal is implied. And the rappers seem to bring out the best in the musicians, who stay away from spotlight-grabbing solos and content themselves to working up juicy house-band grooves. Even the few tracks with no rappers are worth their iPod real estate. On, “Second and Dryades,” Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, a Mardi Gras Indian leader, gives a tactile and evocative mumbled monologue; it works even if you have no idea what he’s talking about, which I don’t. And “Tuff Love” is a nice extended showcase for someone named Trombone Shorty (the guy who played “O Holy Night” on Studio 60 that one time, if Wikipedia is to be believed). For my money, though, the album’s one truly triumphant moment is its title track. Juvenile, the song’s guest, makes more sense on rippling New Orleans funk than any of the album’s indie-rap guests, subcultural connections be damned. The band brings in a brass-band horn-section and builds an intricate and unforced drum-shuffle, making explicit the connection between Meters-style funk and the Cash Money bounce stuff that Juvenile was doing ten years ago. Juve’s elastic gurgle works perfectly over this stuff, and the song works as a sort of history lesson on one particular musical continuum. Noz went so far as to compare the song to Lil Wayne’s “Shooter,” and I wouldn’t go that far, but I really like it.
The album itself is far from perfect. The sound is too brutally clear, and the band doesn’t always find the right fit with its guest-rappers; a slippery Boots Riley vocal gets lost in funk-rock thuds on “Hustle Up.” But From the Corner to the Block is still a really interesting exercise in restraint. Over the past half-century, plenty of visionary musicians have developed signature styles while sublimating their own quirks and figuring out how to best help out their vocalists: the Funk Brothers, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the Sugar Hill Records house band. Those house bands basically don’t exist anymore. Solo artists use identikit session-musicians or ProTooled rhythm sections, and bands generally function as self-sufficient units, writing and singing their own songs. On this album, though, Galactic brings back a dead tradition, staying in the background but putting together a recognizable sound all the same. On From the Corner to the Block, all the musicians involved step outside of their comfort zones. A lot of interesting things happen, and some of them are even great.