In defense of space cowboys
The first time you hear Jamiroquai, you might mistake it for an early Stevie Wonder single--something from back in the days when Little Stevie was too busy gettin' down to do Disney soundtracks. In reality, what you're hearing is a '90s Brit-funk band that has the house evenly divided between those who call them poseurs and those who are so deep into the groove that they don't feel the need to comment.
To understand where Jamiroquai is coming from, you've gotta be in on a few things. The first is the outright obsession London has with mid-'70s American soul music, and an unwritten rule that if it grooves, you dance to it. That philosophy paved the way for bands like Soul II Soul and Brand New Heavies to achieve cult status in the UK, and also fueled the acid house scene of the late '80s that gave birth to Jamiroquai. The second point is that Jason Kay, Jamiroquai's heart and soul, is a far more legitimate heir to the funk throne than most people ever give him credit for.
Comparisons have been made with Jamiroquai's strip mining of American soul to that of Elvis Presley's exploitation of black music. Well, first of all, Kay's father, who split the scene at an early age, was Portuguese, and his mother was a jazz vocalist who made a meager living doing the European club circuit. Kay was basically a child of the streets, surrounded by cheeba, reggae, hip-hop, and other aspects of black inner-city culture. He rarely, if ever, makes attempts to deny the obvious influences in his music, which is pretty tolerant given that practically every review that's ever been written about Jamiroquai contains the words "Stevie Wonder" in the first paragraph. And yet Kay never ceases to admit that Stevie's still the shit. Now that's love and honesty.
But what really stands the test is Jamiroquai's music. The grooves and Kay's voice are so infectious that after a while you just don't give a damn that it's derivative or that Kay has stupid taste in hats. This is not music that's meant to be analyzed--it's not that deep. It's simple, utilitarian funk that's made for gettin' down to, and nothing else.
Yes, the lyrics contain some eco-party rhetoric and garden variety "let's get together and feel all right" anti-racism messages, but who's listening? You could hardly enter a nightclub in Europe in 1994 without hearing something from The Return of The Space Cowboy, Jamiroquai's second release, as well as their biggest breakthrough. And with this latest, equally pleasing album, Travelling Without Moving, Jamiroquai has set their sights on a different kind of Brit invasion. One that sneaks tunes like "Alright" up on you and tugs at your shirt until you join the party.
Unfortunately, winning fans here isn't going to be as easy as in Britain, which has always been far more tolerant of kitsch. Pity, too, 'cause sticking your nose in the air is a whole lot less fun than shaking your butt on the dance floor.
Jamiroquai plays the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth on May 22.
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