When Galactic parted ways with Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet, there was a lot of concern about what the band would become without a front man. Would it jam on Blue Note-like jazz-funk riffs until that well was dry? As From the Corner to the Block and the new Ya-Ka- May suggest, those concerns were right and wrong. Vocalists are good for Galactic, but with Ya-Ka-May particularly, Galactic treats vocals as instruments and a part of the composition, not the raison d’être for the song. Even performances by Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint and Bo Dollis are integrated into the band’s tech-savvy notion of funk rock (or in some cases, rock funk), and the result is a 100 percent contemporary incarnation of New Orleans funk, one without nostalgia or piety.
In a sense, Ya-Ka-May is the band’s purest homage to the Meters, the band that inspired Galactic. The Meters of “Cissy Strut” and “Pungee” were not a solo-oriented band; the instruments fit together like clockwork to create a funky whole. Similarly, the tracks here rarely spotlight any member of the band; it’s all ensemble work, with Ben Ellman’s baritone sax briefly audible at one moment, or a Jeff Raines’ guitar fill jumping out for a moment before returning to the mix. But the massive bass sound could be Robert Mercurio or Rich Vogel’s keyboards, and the funky drums could be Stanton Moore, or they could be looped or the product of a few percussionists. Whatever, it’s a selfless album.
From the Morgus sound bite that opens the album, Ya-Ka-May is very much a New Orleans album. The ghost of second line beats and classic grooves are at the heart of these tracks, and the voices not only represent the city’s signature artists—including John Boutte and Walter “Wolfman” Washington— but the bounce community as well, with appearances by Cheeky Blakk, Big Freedia, Katey Red and Sissy Nobby. Each brings new textures and rhythms to their tracks, and their vocals work on their own and as parts of the pieces. Toussaint is unusually animated in “Bacchus” as he sings about “heading for the future,” and his vocal is fed through a Leslie speaker so that it he sounds as if he’s singing from underwater. He’s followed immediately by the bratty voice of Katey Red barking out a Popeyes order, and just two tracks earlier, Irma Thomas sounds like an emotional pillar in “Heart of Steel.” Still, the governing personality remains Galactic’s, not the singers, who are treated almost like samples.
There’s a lot audacious about Ya- Ka-May, but New Orleans is long overdue for an audacious album. In this case, Galactic has made one that challenges many of the city’s musical conventions while showing a profound affection and belief in the fundamental impulses behind them. That it’s not just bold but engaging makes it doubly successful.