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Published: 2005/11/13
by Brian Gearing

Blueberry Cave – Garaj Mahal

Harmonized Records 023

I learned a long time ago, when I purchased a shitty album based solely on its awesome cover art, not to be misled by appearances. Although the front insert of Garaj Mahal’s newest, Blueberry Cave, is currently the front runner for lamest album cover of the year (and quite possibly worst name as well), the seemingly docile fae hides a fierce funkiness that could win some far less dubious awards. Within those four gentle, nerdy-looking fellows kneeling down in a bed of ivy in front of blooming blue hydrangeas lurk four equally potent musical minds. The oft-labeled supergroup lives up to its name on this one.

Guitarist/sitarist Fareed Haque’s first opening bars of vamping knock gently, but drummer Alan Hertz and bassist Kai Eckhardt have no intentions of waiting for an answer. When the dust has settled from the door’s crash to the floor, it’s pretty clear that Eckhardt’s call to “hit me” is sincere, as he adds an ironic aggression to the type of usually peaceful meditative Indian scat a suburban white kid is most likely to hear on a John McLaughlin record. As “The Shadow” progresses, each player takes a turn, but Eckhardt and Hertz are the bosses, free to roam at will but never failing to come back around for the big blow.

Critics could complain that Blueberry Cave is self-indulgent and showy, but with talent like this, there’s no shame in a little arrogance, and the solos are balanced with plenty of funky group jamming and tight, orchestrated changes. DJ Fly Agaric fills in the gaps on “Alvin” with mysterious vinyl voices as the band drifts away from the funk into more melodic jazz, but the steady groove never fades completely. “Paladin” mixes the same groove with a sticky Motown bridge to a soulful gospel interlude where Haque’s clean tone takes things back to the old school of acid jazz.

A dreamy sitar intro eases “Bicycling in Bombay” into a soft and sneaky drum and bass beat that leaves plenty of spaces for DJ Fly Agaric to fill, while “Blueberry Cave” shakes its head out of the trance for an even headier flight. Eric Levy’s keyboard riff drifts dangerously close to New Age territory before Eckhardt and Haque jerk the Pat Metheny vibe back a couple decades, dropping into a harder bop groove. After banging it out for a bit, however, Levy can’t resist a return flight.

Despite the occasional Scientology leanings, however, the only thing that really holds this record back is Garaj Mahal’s stubborn insistence on lyrics. “Cosmic Elevator” boasts shadowy, underwater jungle beats, but Haque’s nonsensical lyrics transform his otherwise mediocre disco groove into college bar band schwill. Eckhardt’s rapping is equally lame and ruins the West Coast gangsta funk of “’Spect Rap” and “No Spect.”

When the quartet stays within its limits, though, Blueberry Cave is a hell of an album, combining the band’s signature power funk with the sci-fi Riverdance jig and fusionistic Hendrix breaks of “Celtic Indian” and the fully legit dancefloor thump of “Massive.” Near perfect production lets every instrument shine through without piling them into separate boxes, making the combined force of these four truly greater than the sum of their parts. Misguided 15 year-olds might skip over this one in the used bins, but that just leaves it there for those of us who learned that lesson long ago.

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