Ruckus – GalacticLiberty – Greyhounds
Sanctuary Records 84643
Everyone outside of the Kansas Board of Education has accepted the concept
of evolution. Evolution is inescapable. It is omnipresent in our society,
and all beings must evolve in order to attain perfection.
Any band worth their weight must evolve over time. It would be hard to
imagine the lasting impact of the Beatles had they remained a mere R&B cover
band. By the same token, Bob Dylan's influence would have been all too
brief had he soldiered on as a solo folk singer. Since the mid-'90s,
Galactic's sound has experienced a steady evolution from Meters covers to
Uptown boogaloo to heavy and distorted raging funk. Now, the New Orleans
outfit has taken another turn in the evolutionary cycle. Unfortunately,
this recent change in sound comes with some growing pains, and the band's
identity gets a bit shuffled in the process.
Teaming with producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura, Galactic creates a
darker, more atmospheric sound with Ruckus. The Automator's
background is in the hip-hop and electronica scene, and his influence on
Galactic is undeniable, for better or for worse. The album is stacked with
repetitious songs such as "Bongo Joe," "Paint," and "The
Beast." Melodic developments are few and far between, and these songs would
be better suited as sampling beneath a hip-hop album. Even "Kid Kenner," an
instrumental that utilizes bizarre and creative samples, peters out quickly
because its minute melody leaves no room to travel. Surprisingly, not one
song on the album reaches the four minute mark, and yet monotony is still
Regrettably, the talents of Galactic's musicians often fall victim to the
sparse arrangements on Ruckus. After listening to this album, one
would have no idea that Galactic has a saxophone player, as Ben Ellman is
usually AWOL on most of the tracks. Occasionally, he's allowed to make the
most of a brief sax riff, but he's most often forced to harmonica, or he's
nowhere to be found. Keyboardist Rich Vogel is typically relegated to
making brief flourishes once every eight measures, or he's buried deep in
the mix. However, the biggest surprise is the seemingly dwindling influence
of guitarist Jeff Raines. Quite often Raines is reduced to strumming one
chord or plucking out a simple statement. Raines' acoustic guitar is a
welcome innovation on this album, but most of the time it's used more for
atmosphere than for melody.
Of course, Galactic's top-notch musicianship still finds places to shine
within the better songs on this album. Recent live favorite "The Moil" is a
heavy and driving instrumental of haunting funk, while "Mercamon" is a slow
and slinking effects-laden grinder that makes the most of Ellman's brief
saxophone statements. "Uptown Odyssey" is the smoothest song in this
collection, and its old-school tight and bouncing vibe sounds completely out
of place amongst these dark tunes. Nevertheless, it's a fine example of the
excellent vocal work of Theryl "The Houseman" deClouet, who turns in a bevy
of first-rate performances throughout the record. Ruckus is The
Houseman's best studio work with Galactic, and without his impassioned
singing, their cover of General Public's "Tenderness" would certainly fail.
Somehow this bizarre pairing inexplicably works, and Galactic effectively
straddles the fine-line between adult contemporary and soul while squeezing
the juice out of this 1980s ballad.
The Automator and Galactic ostensibly set out to create a stripped down
version of Galactic's sound. Certainly, they've succeeded at this task, but
at what cost? Many of the musicians are under-utilized and several of the
songs are simplified to little more than cyclical riffs. At the same time,
Galactic's undeniable talents belie this quest of simplification, refusing to
be constrained on loaded tracks such as The Moil" and "Uptown Odyssey." If
one path was chosen, Ruckus would have been either a successful
atmospheric, simple record or a successful high-energy, detailed album.
Instead, the listener gets a little bit of both, making Ruckus and
up-and-down affair that lacks cohesion.
Meanwhile, Galactic's Robert Mercurio and Stanton Moore recently produced
Greyhounds' excellent album, Liberty, and the production is about 180
degrees different from The Automator's work on Ruckus. Despite only
having three musicians at their disposal, Mercurio and Moore produce an
extremely full and satisfying sound. The songs are dense and tight with
solid melodies in abundance.
Led by guitarist/bassist/harmonica playing vocalist Andrew Trube, Greyhounds
open with a heavy New Orleans flair in "Yeah Yeah Yeah." Moore's influence
on drummer Nick Pencis is obvious in the driving cowbell and multi-limbed
chugging backbeat. Unlike the songs of Ruckus, "Yeah Yeah Yeah"
keeps piling on layers of instrumentation that builds to a climactic
Trube is riding high when given the opportunity to slow things down into a
slinking swamp funk on "St. Louis" and "Troubled Days." He growls into a
processed microphone and matches his vocal howls with raunchy guitar solos
atop tasteful overdubs. However, Trube is capable of delivering a sultry
vocal, as well. Teaming with Ani DiFranco on "Black Hole," the two create a
dark atmosphere, but unlike Galactic's minimalist effort, the sound remains
full of rich textures. Anthony Farrell employs some hypnotic clavinet and
B3 to create a swirling and sinking effect that is powerfully mixed against
DiFranco's haunting vocals.
Greyhounds are at their best when relishing in soulful numbers, such as the
Bill Withers-like "It's All Over But The Shoutin'." Farrells vocals ooze
with feeling, and Pencis' simple but moving beat keeps the groove low and
moving. Unfortunately, Farrells bravado is undercut by less than weighty
lyrics such as, "You're the queen of bitches, and Im the king of assholes."
In truth, the same problems plague the aptly titled French Fry Song. A
finely-crafted melody is married with a funky beat, but the song is weakened
by its trite subject matter. Greyhounds certainly have a sense of humor, as
evidenced by the amusing hidden track, but they need to distinguish the
difference between tongue-in-cheek delivery and passionate singing. When
the lyrics slide into silly territory, the listener isn't sure whether to
laugh with or at the band.
"Pat Gs" is a fitting album closer that revels in the band's East Texas
roots. While Trube rips some raunchy guitar blues and tells the tale of his
favorite barbecue shack, Farrell tosses in some perky B3 trills. Pencis
creates a bumping backbeat that eventually kicks into overdrive. These
elements combine to form a multi-layered thick wall of dirty soul music, a
sound that is perfectly suited for Greyhounds. This new coating of grit is
a welcome evolution from the band's earlier days as a smooth soul-jazz
Both Ruckus and Liberty showcase the evolution of two bands at
different stages of their careers. Veteran band Galactic has brought in an
outsider to spur its progress, and the results are a mixed bag. On the
other hand, the young Greyhounds have aligned with fellow musician friends
Mercurio and Moore, resulting in a much more organic growth. With a gritty
and funky album, Greyhounds now find themselves sitting in a position that
Galactic occupied a few years ago. Where do they move from here? Well, as
long as they remain true to their talents and keep the changes coming at
their own pace, the sky is the limit.