Return of the Space Cowboy; Jamiroquai are Back

British funk and acid jazz group Jamiroquai are finally getting ready to launch their long-awaited 8th studio album Automaton later this month (31 Mar) and I, for one, couldn’t be more excited.

It’s an odd coincidence that, about a week before the band released their not-so-cryptic short teaser indicating that new material was inbound, a friend and I had been discussing, or more accurately lamenting, the absence of this once high profile mainstay of the international music scene. We reminisced about some of the band’s most popular hits, deeper album tracks and the fact that, regrettably – since we’re both fans – neither of us had seen them live. Most of the time, however, was spent wondering a) what had happened to them and b) would they ever return to the mainstream?

Thankfully, the latter question has now been answered! Between 1992 and 2006 (a pretty good run by any standard) Jamiroquai had moderate to major hits across the globe. They have had three No 1. albums in the UK (also two No. 2), No 1. singles all over the world, have sold more than 35 million albums worldwide and won a Grammy Award in 1998 (they also currently hold the Guinness Book of World Records for best-selling funk album of all time!) Tracks like Space Cowboy, Virtual Insanity, Cosmic Girl, Deeper Underground, Canned Heat, Supersonic and even Feels Just Like It Should were hugely popular at the time. Also, partially due to the diverse range of instruments and sounds the band brings to each track, and partially due to Jay Kay’s ability to write catchy lyrics that often have something to say (love, loss and…the environment), they have aged incredibly well.

Sadly, in the intervening decade, the band has fallen somewhat out of favour. Their most recent album Rock Dust Light Star – released in 2010 in the UK and 2012 in the US – did not match the commercial or critical success of the band’s previous work (although in some European countries it fared well enough and the single “White Knuckle Ride” charted at 7 on the US Dance chart). But I’ve been a fan for over 20 years; I know what Jamiroquai are capable of and the prospect of new material by the band is something I welcome with no small amount of hope or even optimism.

Since announcing the forthcoming album (and tour), the band has released two singles; Automaton and Cloud 9. I will do a full album review when it launches but I do want to give some brief thoughts and explain why I’m encouraged by what I hear.

Automaton is a great track. It just is. It’s a welcome blend of fashionable, synth led electronica, funk bass lines and guitar the band are known for. Although the track’s predominantly electronic style has been informed by much of what has happened in the charts during Jamiroquai’s time out of the limelight (Justice, recent Daft Punk material, Skrillex), it’s well known that over the years Jay Kay has tried to move the band further from their acid jazz roots (with a greater or lesser degree of success) or at least diversify the sound. The band has experimented with pop, rock, electronic and more operatic styles and has introduced more funk and disco (though this may also be due to changes in the band line-up), so Automaton is certainly not “out of the blue” and certainly retains some indelible and undeniable Jamiroquai qualities. During the breakdown, in particular, the funk guitar and disco strings are classic Jamiroquai and it’s a nice nod to the band’s more recognisable style. It’s also worth acknowledging that synth led (in particular distorted, synth-bass driven) tracks like Deeper Underground and Feels Just Like It Should are clear forebears of Automaton lifted straight from the band’s own back catalogue.

It sounds so obvious but the unifying factor in Jamiroquai’s otherwise varied and sometimes disparate sounding songs has always been Jay Kay’s unique, effortlessly cool and soulful voice. That is as true now as it ever was and if you were to struggle to recognise Automaton as a Jamiroquai song from the instrumentals, it is unmistakably so once Jay Kay starts to sing (he also spits some mad verse during the breakdown which is kinda cool.)

If Automaton is a welcome acknowledgment of changes in the music industry and an attempt to woo a new audience, Cloud 9 is very much an appeal to older fans – particularly those who enjoyed 2001’s Funk Odyssey. In fact it’s fair to say the track could easily sit alongside any of the singles taken from that album. Indeed, in a press release, Jay Kay himself said that “Cloud 9 is a song that’s written in the style that I hope people know us for and are familiar with. It’s a song that anyone that has been jilted and yet found love somewhere else will no doubt relate to. Can’t wait for you to hear it – get in the car, stick it on the radio and just drive.” Cloud 9 feels like a counterpart to Little L in many ways. Like that hit, it’s all palm muted guitars, funky synth bass and occasional strings in this disco track and that suits Jay Kay to the ground. The video itself is a nice conglomeration of Cosmic Girl, Little L and Love Foolosophy.

Anyway, I won’t say much more but if the two new singles are a good measure of what the new album will be – a mixture of signature sound and the type of music I’d expect the band to make, given the passage of years and changing musical tastes – then roll on March 31st.

Stephen Harris

Maker/gamer/geek/dad/husband.

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