JuJu’s self-titled album has been on regular rotation on the Psych Insight turntable since it’s release last spring. A very moving mediation on the refugee crisis that was happening in the Middle East and Europe at the time as a result of the wars in the former region, it is a remarkable piece of work and has certainly helped to keep the issue alive in my mind, even though the media, including social media, has seemed to have largely moved on from the subject. As such I had very high expectations when I heard that a second album was being released on Fuzz Club Records, and just in time for JuJu’s appearance at the Liverpool Psych Fest.
JuJu is the name used by Gioele Valenti, the Italian multi-instrumentalist who was formerly in the Lay Llamas, and, I have to say, that he has more than met my expectations with yet another album that is inspired as a response to the refugee crisis even though, or perhaps because, it is musically quite different. There was something dark and quite sinister about the first album, in many ways within the Italian occult music tradition; this is an altogether upbeat take on the psych tradition, also bringing in elements of funk, soul other dance music and afrobeat.
What is evident from the opening track, ‘Death By Beautiful Things’ is that the arrangements on this album are just amazing. It feels as if every sound, every beat, every sonic gesture has been placed meticulously, yet in a way that allows the music to flow. This means that the listener is able to really concentrate on the nature and meaning of the music and, on occasion, may even want to get up and dance to it since there is a real groove to the track. As the title suggests ‘Death by Beautiful Things’ is about serious issues, and there is clearly a certain emptiness to the track, yet there is also a lushness to the track which, I am sure, is the sort of contrast that Valenti was going for here.
‘In A Ghetto’ is the first of two tracks featuring Capra Informis, the masked djembe player from Swedish band Goat. This certainly has echoes from JuJu’s previous album in the way that the sound is often slightly veiled… especially through the vocals, though the presence of the djembe adds something extra to it giving it more of an afrobeat feel. Again the arrangements here are really spot on (let’s take this as read for the rest of the album), and the whole track really is an amazing mixture of sounds that work so well together to form something that is both soulful (in both senses) and atmospheric.
This, it seems to me, is where the album succeeds… As I have already said, this is a more upbeat album than the debut; yet it manages to keep that serious core. This is certainly the case in ‘And Play A Game’ and ‘James Dean’ which are darker tracks than the two that preceded it, yet still have a sense of lightness and groove. It strikes me that this is not an easy balance to pull off, but Valenti largely manages to do that… here through a series of musical episodes around a central beat. There’s quite a bit of repetition here. This for me is yet another way of expanding psych beyond it’s already porous borders (as I was suggesting in my recent review of the new Moths and Locusts album).
‘I Got Your Soul’ has a more jittery jazz-feel to it. The beat is still there but there is less fluency here for the most part. This is not a criticism but a reflection that the album not only pulls you along but also on occasion gives you pause for thought. Sonically to this track helps you appreciate just how many layers there are to this music, and how many instruments – all played by Valenti – are being put into the mix here.
‘Patrick’ is heavier, yet has an etherial otherworldly feel to it… that vocal again being effectively veiled thus giving it a desperate and melancholic quality. Of all the tracks in the album this is the most in your face. The groove is still there, but this sounds angrier and more punchy and immediate, here the complex arrangements result in an intensity that doesn’t let up. After this ‘What A Bad Day’ feels immediately less claustrophobic with a strong funky bass, yet there is a powerful underlying sadness to this track as the repeating of the bass line digs into you and the much more simple instrumentation around it reveal simple truths about (in)humanity. This feels like a death march, a song of regret… one that I find very moving… yet also strangely beautiful.
After this long and soulful track ‘Sunny After Moon’ hits you with a more optimistic beginning with guitar and a sort simple folksy sound. Once again featuring Capra Informis, this opens out into a massive funk of a beat that draws you in with its effervescence, as elements of dance music and afrobeat vie with each other in an intoxicating mix that takes the album off in a completely different direction at the end. It’s as unexpected as it is welcome, and whether it is a sign of hope or a death rattle, that is very much in the ear of the listener. Nevertheless, it’s perhaps an indication of what is possible and of where Valenti might go next with his JuJu project.
As I said I had huge expectations for this album after last year’s release. That these have been met is both a joy and a relief, but what I would say is that they have not been met in the way that I expected. While the overall tone of the album is lighter and more upbeat, certainly from a casual listen; when you really get into it this is a deep and occasionally introspective set of songs that are every bit as affecting as their predecessors. As such this, in my view, can be seen as a step forward by Valenti who has brought us an album that is more subtle yet every bit as compelling… I expect ‘Our Mother Was A Plant’ to be on my turntable every bit as much as ‘JuJu’… and that is testimony indeed to its excellence.
‘Our Mother Was A Plant’ is released on Fuzz Club records on 22nd September, and is available for pre-order here, and from many good record stores.