Release Date: Mar 31, 2017
Record label: Virgin EMI
One of the more indelible images of the '90s is Jay Kay, leader of Jamiroquai, dancing around moving floors and furniture with Fred Astaire-like flourishes in the music video for "Virtual Insanity." It made a star of out him (and his hat) while pushing London's homegrown funk and acid jazz scenes to the forefront. At the same time, Jamiroquai would get caught up in the massive shakeups that befell the music industry. Just as "Virtual Insanity" was receiving hosannas at the VMAs in 1997, the first iterations of Napster were heralding a distribution revolution that would cripple the relevance of institutions like MTV.
Twenty years after "Virtual Insanity" gained Jamiroquai massive success, including the band's best-known song in America, and seven years after their last album, the band returns with Automaton, a strong statement on life in 2017. Disconnection runs rampant across this album, despite catchy hooks and dance-laden tracks, as Jay Kay and the band drive a division between our interests and our pursuits. The group highlights our experiences and simultaneously our distractions when we go out, when we come into contact with others, and when we listen to music across Automaton.
J amiroquai's eighth album straddles two traditional scenarios: a dystopian, digital future and booze-soaked sunny days spent spying on sophisticated ladies. Set to the sounds of French touch, disco funk, Tron movie scores and Bond-style strings, there are agitated prophecies - such as on synth onslaught Automaton - and libidinous love songs: he worships at the feet of a cosmopolitan female on Summer Girl, while Hot Property is about a woman whose mind is so sharp that "she just killed a man". While his energies might have waned (his voice on the chemically addled Dr Buzz is particularly fried), the spooky groove of We Can Do It and the chintzy jazz-lite of Vitamin revive the classic traits of his early career.
Let's get straight into it: 'Automaton' is Jay Kay's biggest pop moment since 2005's 'Feels Just Like It Should.' Its electronic confidence is thanks in part to keyboardist Matt Johnson, as well as a general rethink after 2010's slightly underwhelming 'Rock Dust Light Star'. 'Cloud 9', for example, is quintessential 90s Jamiroquai (which is a good thing), but 'Shake It Off' is a production in search of a proper chorus that only suffers further next to 'Automaton', which immediately heads for the stars. 'Superfresh' is less than the sum of its disco parts, though, while the less said about 'Hot Property' the better.
It's been two decades since the British group Jamiroquai treadmilled into ubiquity. The British band--a rotating cast of characters with flamboyant frontman Jay Kay as their falsetto-scraping nucleus--reached peak cool with the acid jazz snap of "Virtual Insanity," a hit from 1997's Travelling Without Moving that marked the too-early crest of a band shedding the acoustic guitar-plucked pop of years prior. Though regarded as their most notable catalog notch, it never took off in the States beyond the canonical music video, winning the coveted MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year in 1997 but failing to chart on the Billboard Hot 100.
Saturday night fever with Jamiroquai... At this point in their career, Jamiroquai don't have anything to prove anymore. Their music is timeless, many hits have become classics, plus they sell out arenas each time they tour. These achievements offer them the luxury of releasing new music at a preferred pace. Unfortunately, it's a damn slow one, because 7 years lapsed since Rock Dust Light Star saw the light of day.
Jamiroquai could have been relegated to sheer '90s nostalgia, but their 12-track Automaton shows that wasn't meant to be. Known primarily for frontman Jay Kay's penchant for funky hats, unreasonable vocal comparisons to Stevie Wonder and a propensity for catchy acid jazz and "future funk" grooves, Jamiroquai are back, and the end result is worth your time. It's been seven years since 2010's Rock Dust Light Star, and it's clear that the band haven't really lost a step.
As the title implies, Jamiroquai's eighth studio album, 2017's Automaton, is a dancefloor-friendly production inspired as much by lead singer Jay Kay's famous love of sports cars as Giorgio Moroder's synth and drum machine-heavy productions of the '70s and '80s. More broadly, the album also fits into Kay's fascination with the effect technology has both positively and negatively on our lives and on the planet (i.e., 1993's "Emergency on Planet Earth" and 1996's "Virtual Insanity"). Which is to say, this is pretty much the same album Kay has been making since at least 2001's A Funk Odyssey.
I mitation, we're told, is the sincerest form of flattery. What are we to make, then, of the surprise return of British acid funkateers Jamiroquai as a Daft Punk tribute act? Band leader Jay Kay, once known for his statement hats, now sports a glowing robot Pokémon headdress in the video for comeback single Automaton, an appealing, synth-driven disco burbler. You might counter that Jamiroquai planted a flag in space long ago, with songs such as Cosmic Girl and Space Cowboy.
For those who never stopped spinning the group's turn-of-the-Millennium classics, the emergence of Automaton— Jamiroquai's first since 2010— comes as a mixed blessing. This new LP harks back to their early work more than the sparse albums since 2001, with propulsive grooves and Jay Kay's smooth— like-butter vocals. What it doesn't provide is many reasons to turn to this disc over one of those old ones; highlights like "Shake It On" and "Nights Out In the Jungle" introduce a fresh, Random Access Memories-ian electric disco vibe, but too many others-particularly the repetitive "Summer Girl"— feel like tired, recycled outtakes from the band's heyday.
Jamiroquai's first album in seven years, Automaton, aims to modernize the band's funk-pop sound. In lieu of tribal instrumentation and acid-jazz noodling, the group leans heavily on electronic production to supplement their trademark slinky basslines and funk guitar. But even as Jamiroquai taps into a robotic aesthetic similar to that of Daft Punk's seismic Random Access Memories, their retro-futurist trappings are used to illustrate that our increased dependence on technology costs us a piece of our humanity.
Some things are best left alone. The temptation to meddle with an original work, milking it for all its commercial worth, can often be too tantalising to ignore: see Grease II, Jaws II, The Godfather III, the reformed Guns N Roses, the posthumous releases of Michael Jackson - in fact, the majority of posthumous releases - the list goes on. Now, disco-funk radio-favourites, Jamiroquai, join said list with their first offering in seven years, 'Automaton'.