They didn’t get a guernsey in Samuel Charters’ New Orleans: Playing a Jazz Chorus (hardly surprising, they’re not exactly a jazz outfit) and attracting a one line assessment in Rick Koster’s Louisiana Music (crosses the jam band tendencies of Phish or the Dead with serious funk nuances and jazz chops) but I’ve had the outfit that formed as an octet back in 1994 under the name Galactic Prophylactic filed under Check these out for a while.
The most recent reminder came with Ben Ellman’s gig as producer for the two Trombone Shorty albums, but I’ve also picked up live material featuring drummer Stanton Moore sitting in with various collaborators, so some sort of investigation was always on the cards.
Galactic’s origins date back to the early nineties, when guitarist Jeff Raines and bass player Robert Mercurio moved from Washington D.C. to New Orleans to study at Tulane and Loyola, encountering the local funk scene, influenced by The Meters, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the enduring legacy of Professor Longhair.
The current lineup is rounded out by drummer Stanton Moore, saxophonist/producer Ben Ellman, and Rich Vogel on Hammond B3. Until 2004 there was also a vocalist in the form of Theryl DeClouet, but since then they’ve been predominantly an instrumental unit with guest vocals from Corey Glover from Living Colour and assorted other New Orleans and related luminaries as their style moved from New Orleans funk to a fusion of hip hop, electronica, fusion, and jazz.
The guest vocalist roster on Ya-Ka-May includes Irma Thomas, Chief Bo Dollis of The Wild Magnolias, Allen Toussaint and Walter Wolfman Washington, Trombone Shorty, Corey Henry, John Boutté, Josh Cohen and Ryan Scully of Morning 40 Federation, and Glen David Andrews, as well as Bounce artists Cheeky Blakk, Big Freedia, Katey Red, and Sissy Nobby and extra horns from the Rebirth Brass Band.
Ya-Ka-May, in case you were wondering is a noodle soup, possibly of Chinese origin also known as Old Sober due to alleged hangover-curing properties, where whatever meat you have on hand is simmered with green onions, noodles, hard-boiled eggs and the predictable Cajun-Creole blend of spices(more details here).
The fifteen tracks on the regular Ya-Ka-May (the iTunes version has two bonus tracks) give what sounds like a fair cross-section of what’s happening in N’Awlins.
Once you’ve got the minute and a bit mad scientist rant Friends of Science out of the way, Boe Money kicks the musical side of things off with a bang as the horns of the Rebirth Brass Band lead through an instrumental that’s part dancehall jam, and part street parade. The rap and hip-hop bit kicks in with Double It with rapping from some dude named Big Freedia over an energetic dancehall groove that I personally could do without, but mileages, of course vary.
Much more to Hughesy’s taste is the Irma Thomas vocal on Heart of Steel, which hovers over the border between R&B and rap and Wild Man, two minutes of Big Chief Bo Dollis vocalising that’s recognisably coming out of Mardi Gras Indian territory via the dance floor and Bacchus where Allen Toussaint’s characteristic vocal and piano riffing bumps itself up against the rap elements, sort of Gil Scott Heron meets New Orleans over interesting rhythmic patterns from drummer Stanton Moore.
Moore kicks off Katey vs. Nobby with fairly traditional marching drums before New Orleans rappers Katey Red and Sissy Nobby jump in for a vocal cutting contest. Not being the world’s greatest hip-hop fan, Hughesy lost interest around the ten-second mark, though the marching band drums keep going under the street brat rapping.
Cineramascope, on the other hand, lands us back in more familiar marching band territory as the Rebirth horns groove along over a funky riff with Rich Vogel’s B3 underpinning things. The John Boutté vocals on Dark Water work rather nicely as well, but from the start of Do It Again, what we used to refer to as a language advisory situation back when I was on the radio has Hughesy hitting the shuffle button. That might read like a bit of wowserism sneaking in, but there’s a definite ear worm in the rhythm and there are some things you’d prefer not to have running through your head, compris?
Liquor Pang is another track that’ll be pushing to find its way into Hughesy’s Top 1500 Most Played, with singer Josh Cohen lamenting the bad decisions with the money I earn, but thirty-three seconds of Krewe d'Etat and four minutes of You Don't Know with gritty vocals from Glen David Andrews over wailing Dixieland horns are going to be lurking on the fringes thereof, as will Speaks His Mind, an interesting mix of rappy vocalising over an intriguing instrumental track with fluttering guitar though we’re back in hit the shuffle button mode for Do It Again (Again) where those language advisory issues raise their ugly head again.
The bonus tracks, Muss the Hair, an almost traditional-sounding excursion into Allen Toussaint’s regular territory and Sandor’s Revenge, an instrumental based around Moore’s driving syncopated drums don’t quite fit into the vibe of the rest of the album (presumably that’s why they’re bonus tracks, eh?) They’ll fit, on the other hand, rather handily into Hughesy’s iTunes Fat Tuesday playlist, so that’s fine with me.
In live performances Galactic, by all accounts, jam their way through marathon dance medleys, and what’s on offer here is probably going to provide the basis for on-stage extension, with three to four minute themes that can be linked and extemporised around, a set of party songs strongly influenced by New Orleans bounce rap that’ll also work when filtered through the DJ booth in a club environment.
There’ll be tracks from the album that’ll find their way to the top of Hughesy’s iTunes playlists (Boe Money, Heart of Steel, Wild Man and Bacchus for starters) and if we were still polluting the airwaves Galactic’s ghetto-funk and hip-hop elements would be a useful addition to the musical terrain.
If you’re into New Orleans music it’s worth an evaluatory listen. Approach with caution, maybe, but worth approaching, though the approach may not result in a purchase...