Damon Albarn, "Dr. Dee" (Virgin)
Rocket Juice & the Moon, "Rocket Juice & the Moon" (Honest Jon)
Years ago, as the end of Blur loomed, some Britrock rag reported that bandleader Damon Albarn was going off to write musical theater instead. Lads gagged, but I thought: Jeez, perfect. The developed drama, the compact narrative knack, the woozy-calliope musicality of the band -- he'd be great writing for the stage. His projects since then, from the postmodernism of Gorillaz to various one-offs and side projects, have indulged his thespian pursuits to various degrees and with various degrees of success. With something of a Midas touch in modern Brit rock, it's maybe fitting he chose a 16th-century alchemist as the central subject of "Dr. Dee," an opera composed with director Rufus Norris. The results, however, are more pyrite than golden.
Divorced from the action of the stage, "Dr. Dee" is a tough sell on its own. Consistently slow, sparse, erratic and constructed with largely antediluvian instrumentation, the 18-song cycle is often ponderous and pedantic. But the high-minded compositions and languid libretto largely avoids pretension. These aren't airs being donned by a clever rocker with a stylistic attention deficit and a restless marketing team (i.e., Sting and his lute), this is clearly a serious ambition, a striving for something a bit more graceful than the usual result of progressive rock (i.e., David Byrne's "The Forest"). That said, once it's done -- well, one can appreciate having had an experience without also possessing a desire to ever repeat it.
A few moments, though, are worth relishing. Buried amid the stuffy fugues and cracked continuo line are a couple of sweet Albarn moments -- one in "The Marvelous Dream" as he strums and sings a foreboding weather report, another in "Cathedrals" as his trademark voice intones a prayer, which is eventually taken over and taken up by the joyful noise of a recorder -- and a couple of wacky ones -- like the artfully constructed astrology of "The Moon Exalted" and its tale of a not-Young "cinammon girl," or the flouncy, falsetto lunacy wrapped around "Watching the Fire That Waltzed Away," which evolves through a buzzy busy signal and through wild gasps and moans before settling into a Philip Glass-ian thrum of keys and woodwinds.
Back in the 21st century, however, Albarn shines significantly brighter in yet another new collaborative project -- with added Chicago spice.
For years in London, Albarn has been nurturing his own collective of world musicians. The bunch of them, together called Africa Express, has festival performances scheduled this summer followed by a possible tour. In addition, Albarn has coalesced a trio of like-minded players -- Red Hot Chili peppers bassist Flea, revered Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen (Fela Kuti) and himself -- called Rocket Juice & the Moon.
Their self-titled debut, out now, is a laid-back, noodling affair driven by Allen's Nigerian rhythms. While "Dr. Dee" is all about calcified history, "Rocket Juice & the Moon" is all about moving loosely within this moment. Perhaps we're used to discussing Albarn's projects in terms of adventure and left-turns -- this project is, in the best possible way, somehow refreshingly one note, one jam. Mixing soul grooves, African guitar, R&B harmonies and fluid hip-hop, this is a sunny set that, even though it takes a few tracks to build a head of steam (or something similarly smoky), is easy to embrace. Guests abound: Erykah Badu deadpans celestial well wishes in "Hey Shooter," Malian vocalist Cheick Tidiane Seck is fiery on "Extinguished" ("If you throw away something which has been burning / make sure it's out") and Ghanian rapper M.anifest is only one superb element to the lively "Follow-Fashion." Techno legend Mark Ernestus mixes, too.
Parts of the record were recorded in Chicago, and the South Side's Hypnotic Brass Ensemble -- eight brothers, all sons of Sun Ra Arkestra trumpter Phil Cohran -- enlivens three tracks, including "Hey Shooter" and the intense closer "Leave-Taking."
Albarn's spry keyboard and compositional kinks bounce through many of the songs (he sings a Blur-ry ballad, "Poison," which is something of an aberration here), while Flea's bass keeps a low profile and Allen's snare-loving lines keep things propped up. Their chemistry is showcased in trifles like "Rotary Connection," with Albarn ham-fisting video-game synths while the rhythm section duels. It's not exactly a tight record, and several tracks wander widely and long, but it beats the opera by a home-county mile.