With the new "Into the Deep," it's abundantly clear that Galactic strengthened its personality when it lost its front man.
When Galactic parted ways with singer Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet in 2004, fans feared that the band would come to seem like a backing band, overshadowed by the singers who guest-starred with them. That hasn’t happened. If anything, the band's identity has become clearer. With DeClouet, Galactic would interrupt a set of Blue Note Records-inspired funk for Memphis R&B with Houseman, then pick up where they left off once he left the stage. Because of Houseman's charisma, it wasn't obvious that they were on the right track when they returned to instrumental funk.
On the new Into the Deep, Galactic remains funky, but it’s a continuation of the 21st Century version of classic funk that has clearly, definitively become the band's brand. The grooves still have the same classic roots, and the band still lives and dies with the pocket Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio lock down. But for their albums, Moore’s drums are often looped, and plainly evident technology means the band’s not limited on record to what it can do live. It has been the band's sound since 2007's From the Corner to the Block, and it has opened up the world of sonic possibilities, but the group's not overwhelmed by the possible choices. As a result, their sound is more coherent than it was when Galactic was a more conventional band.
That’s most evident on the first single, the hyperkinetic R&B blast “Right On.” Ms. Charm Taylor’s spirited vocal creates a lot of excitement, but Galactic gives her a solid base to work with starting with Ben Ellman’s honking baritone. Once the band finds the groove, handclaps, drum fills and horn stings burst in and drop out with technological precision, giving the song an additional insistent quality beyond the song’s freight train drive.
On “Right On,” Galactic uses technology to create a more precise, slightly ADD version of itself. “Chicken in the Corn” takes it a step further as the song has more structurally and dynamically in common with EDM, but the song--like the album--doesn’t live in the computer. Brushy One-String’s vocals are given the dub treatment, overheated to the point of distortion at times, echoed in others, but his voice has a grain that remains very human, even as it’s used to goad dancers on to the dance floor.
Ben Ellman and Robert Mercurio clearly love the textures of voices, and while there are no bounce artists or local rappers on the mic for Into the Deep, all the voices have character. Ellman and Mercurio are also smart enough to know what to do with them. The title cut is a swooning, soul ballad that allows singer Macy Gray to be her lost-in-love self, and it’s easy to imagine the song played live. Only the strings and moments of unnatural quiet reveal the computer’s presence. The same is true for the soulful “Does It Really Make a Difference?” with Mavis Staples, and the closing instrumental “Today’s Blues,” which could be mistaken for a lost Booker T and the MGs’ B-side.
“Today’s Blues” is a subtle reminder that for all the technology, Galactic's charms remain musical. Parts may be chopped, assembled and punched in, but they're still musical ideas, not puzzle pieces. The thing from Into the Deep that was on my mind when I woke up this morning was the beautiful, knowing, melancholy trumpet part that frays out of the massed horns to dance with Rich Vogel's swelling B-3 organ improvisation in the final chorus.
The song is also a sly answer to all the doubters in 2004. Booker T and the MGs never lost their identity, whether they were on their own or backing Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Sam and Dave, Wilson Pickett or The Staple Singers. Galactic hasn’t either.