Chances are, if something sounds like a gimmick, it probably is a gimmick. The Spirit Of Apollo, the first album from globetrotting pairing Ze Gonzalez (a Brazilian, best known for being a professional skateboarder) and Squeak E. Clean (an American, best known for being Spike Jonze’s brother), has ‘gimmick’ written all over it: it proudly boasts over 40 guest appearances across its 15 tracks and talks itself up with ‘the righteous goal of bringing people together through music and art.’
The implication is that N.A.S.A.’s diverse make-up should make for some seamless blending of cultures and styles- it doesn’t. The Brazilian influence is negligible, limited to a couple of half-hearted funk riffs and an appearance by Seu Jorge on -Money’ (I’m still trying to figure out where). The place you’d most expect to see a samba influence, the beats, has nothing of the sort: it’s old-school boom-bap all the way, and any attempt to incorporate some Afro-Latino flair is invariably overwhelmed by the painful, nails-on-a-blackboard hi-hat effect that’s littered throughout virtually every song.
If nothing else, the guestlist is impressive: icons like RZA and Scarface mix it with pretenders like Kanye and MIA, while the presence of George Clinton (naturally), David Byrne (impressively) and Tom Waits (how?) add a degree of crossover appeal, if it didn’t had enough already. They even manage to shake a couple of excellent tunes out of them: Byrne and Jamaican emcee Ras Congo combine for the infectious, politically-charged -Money’ (it’s the root of all evil, apparently) and the space-age funky -N.A.S.A. Music’ features the always-excellent E-40 in all his leftfield glory. Even the obviously blog-pandering -Gifted,’ featuring an unholy trinity of Kanye West, Santogold (now Santigold) and Lykke Li, comes off really well.
Still, too much of The Spirit Of Apollo is just simultaneously bland and over-cooked. Barely two minutes in, there’s a children’s choir on the go, and that’s just the beginning. The union of Tom Waits and hip hop’s resident nutjob Kool Keith sounds interesting as a concept, but in reality it’s an awkward collision of heavy piano blues and tinny nu-funk horns: Keith’s verse may well have been recorded with a completely different backing track, it sounds so out-of-place. Even Ol’ Dirty Bastard makes an appearance, on the Karen O-led -Strange Enough,’ the title serving only to underline the fact that this is the type of hipster-baiting bullshit he’d have run a mile from during his lifetime.
With any group of guest performers, there’s bound to be a couple of bad ones, but the remarkable thing about The Spirit Of Apollo is just how boring they are: there’s nothing wrong with Ghostface’s rap on -The Mayor,’ he says Staten Island a few times and talks about his day, but it’s the sort of thing he could do in his sleep. He might have been asleep. Similarly, on -Soul Samba’ (a very misleading title), Del Tha Funkee Homosapien demonstrates his remarkable ability to say absolutely anything in that same monochromatic drawl. That’s his thing. Ideally, somebody would recognise that he’s not the most dynamic performer on the planet and tailor the music to complement him.
Unfortunately, just like any number of songs on the records, it seems like N.A.S.A. decided just to sit back and wait for Del to do something brilliant, at which point they’d throw in a few random space noises. Is that really the kind of thing on which to base a worldwide cultural movement? Didn’t think so.