It’s easy to think that Jamiroquai existed in the wrong era. Their tendency for funky bass-lines, scratching guitars, spacey synthesizers, and the use of use of cosmic wordplay to describe sex make them sound like legends of the disco era, or even the early days of 80s funk. Somehow, singer Jay Kay and co. ended up hitting it big in the mid 90s with the likes of “Virtual Insanity,” Cosmic Girl,” and “Canned Heat.” But considering today’s pop music scene is as dance-oriented as the disco scene, it’s almost surprising that Jamiroquai aren’t hailed as influences to many producers or artists. Regardless, Jay Kay has decided to bring back the funk (or acid jazz, if you will) regardless of his relevancy.
Automaton is the band’s eighth studio album and first in seven years. 12 tracks in 57 minutes makes for a surprisingly breezy listen despite five of the 12 tracks reaching past the five-minute mark. While the band doesn’t use that expanded time to jam or play with the grooves they build, those sounds still swing and sway like the band’s classic sound. In fact, the band sounds amplified and stadium-ready more than ever before as tracks like “Shake It On,” “Superfresh,” and the title track echoing and thumping like something at Ultra Festival. Jay Kay and co. still sound like they’re happy to be stuck in the disco era as evidence by the bongos and swirling strings on “Summer Girl” and the stop-start drum beat of “Dr. Buzz.” Sometimes that works, as on the smooth single of “Cloud 9” where Jay Kay’s voice remains impressively intact in front of the song’s dropped-down funk bass and restrained guitar scratches. Other times, like on “Nights Out in the Jungle” and “We Can Do It,” the band sound awkward and restricted to a tedious beat that doesn’t change.
But there are moments when Jamiroquai gets to let loose. On “Vitamin,” the progressive drums and speedy bass mixes well with the “Space Cowboy”-esque keyboards in the background and the smoking saxophone solo. It sounds more like a modern dance song influenced by the 70s sound rather than a disco rip-off. Then there’s album closer, “Carla,” with its fuzzed organ line and propulsive drums with hi-hat rolls. Those are really the only elements to the song, leaving Jay Kay to make his loving ode to a woman (not sure if it’s a romantic partner, future child, or something else) that he wants to better himself for. It’s an odd beat, but it shows that Jamiroquai is still willing to experiment with their sound. With all the possibilities that dance music comes with nowadays, this would be prime time for Jamiroquai to experiment with their sound. Jay Kay still sounds like the man he was gliding across the moving floor 21 years ago (though a bit pitchy), so why can’t he and his band establish themselves as these elder statesmen of modern disco-funk?
Automaton proves that Jamiroquai still have the chops to make a record in 2017. Unfortunately, that’s the only thing that it does. It doesn’t advance the sound of band, but throws blips of modern studio production on top. It makes a valid case that Jamiroquai have every right to be called “talented” in the new age, but it doesn’t make the case as to why we should care about them. If anything, this should allow Jay Kay to experiment with his band, maybe something smoother and low-fi. The album’s hints at dubstep and modern EDM feel off-putting, so why be different? Maybe the next album title should be Authentic?