August 12, 2019
Released On January 22, 2013
I don’t really know if we should call “neo-soul” neo-soul anymore. It’s been over twenty years since D’Angelo released Brown Sugar, and if that’s “neo-Soul” and Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience is “neo-soul,” then we probably need to have a conversation about what exactly neo-soul is. A lot of bands these days who create under the neo-soul moniker raise their banner of innovation with the statement of soul and pop fusion. That’s all well and good, except that’s exactly what RnB has been doing since long before D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and all of Questlove’s friends ripped the pop influence right back out of there, and gave all those ’90s RnB artists a slap on the wrist while showing them how they thought it ought’ve be done. Neo-soul was pretentious, purist black music at its absolute finest, with the added complexity of the relative newcomer, hip-hop’s heavy influence — which, in turn, meant that the artists who prided themselves on organic instrumentation and experimental innovation weren’t quite as counter to their anti-thesis as the papers might’ve made it seem. The neo-soul, RnB, pop argument is a whole thing, and we could go into it, but that’s not what we’re here to discuss today.
We’re here to discuss Manj by Joomanji, because I chose it as the underappreciated album for today, and also because I have no idea what to do with this record. “Neo-soul” is the obvious answer, but my whole thesis is that the term is pretty much outdated, and the fact that nobody has really taken the time to update the term for the Generation Z artists influenced by that music who are doing something completely different than what was going on in the ’90s/early 2000s is evidence to the fact that we’re a long way from black music that doesn’t pander to white audiences ever getting real attention from the mainstream.
Manj is a great album because the songs are great and the performances are great. Not because there are plenty of major 9, minor 7 chords sprinkled throughout. Not because the grooves sit far behind the metronome, and then ahead, and then behind, with the now omnipresent drunk feel — once the high point of innovation for neo-soul, now, a useful drumming technique, but also, sometimes, a meme at Jazz clubs. Manj achieves what it achieves because the atmosphere and mood created by the album supersedes the attention to genre and conventions, long irrelevant.
Joomanji, from what I understand, is not just a band, but a musical collective and movement, and what they stand for is made clear throughout the album’s runtime. They want to have a positive influence with their music, and they stand together for and through that music. What really gets me about them, and this album, is that it came out two years prior to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, yet it effectively captures the melding of jazz and hip-hop (maybe to a slightly lesser experimental extent) that Lamar busted the gate open with in 2015. What I’m saying is that Manj by Joomanji was ahead of its time in 2013, and it deserves the same attention that the genre defining albums that followed it received. Neo-soul is mostly a thing of the past, but artists like Joomanji serve as proof that the genre’s successors are far from done with keeping soul music alive and well.
California soul collective exploring innovative & versatile musicianship through rich & dense tracks.
This is one of those records that’s so good that it makes me feel bad. Manj makes me feel bad that it’s been six years since it’s release, and I’d never heard of it. It makes me feel bad that it’s an absolutely perfect record to play in the car on dates; I’m still single. It makes me feel bad that because I’m such a devout hip-hop head that I actually yearn for music like this to broaden my horizons, but nobody ever comes with it. I’m talking about that funk, soul, and knock that make an R&B album damn near feel like a hip-hop album. It makes me feel bad that I didn’t make this music my damn self. It makes me feel bad that apparently the mass public doesn’t know Manj is out there, and Joomanji deserve their attention. But at the same time, this record makes me feel so damn good. It’s good to know that groups like Joomanji are still out there. It’s good to know that this level of quality is still a benchmark for artists/groups in this era. Quite frankly, I haven’t heard an album of this instrumental quality in the R&B/hip hop lane since, maybe, a few Roots albums ago? It’s always good to know that people still recognize and value the genius that is Devin The Dude (“Toasted“). My one complaint would be that the emceeing on the record could be a whole lot stronger, but I also realize that the verbal dexterity of the rappers involved is so far from the point of this record. This record is all about capturing a good feeling — just look at how much they use the Fender Rhodes. Joomaji is the group, and the Rhodes is the elephant. Let’s play again!
Heavy sigh. Ugh. The several (!) mass shootings in the past week or so is just awful. It’s the worst that humanity has to offer. I do not, however, have any interest in discussing or debating any part of them. I bring it up because, as I’ve mentioned before, music has a healing power that I find to be unparalleled. It’s at a time of immense pain, both personal and national, that I turn to that which has always granted me solace when asked. It’s why I have “Without music, life would be a mistake.” tattooed on my right arm. And it’s why a song like Joomanji’s “Sweet Music” is comforting. The whole album is pleasant and inviting like Spring, but the message of “Sweet Music” is an important one, especially right now. I spent the week basking in the album’s blanket-y goodness trying to make sense of the world. (I also spent a good chunk of time this week rediscovering Tool, whose music was finally added to streaming services. But anyway…) Joomanji’s music doesn’t necessarily offer any kind of answer, but I don’t think it’s supposed to. It’s music to groove to, it’s escapism, it’s a beach with warm sand and beautiful views. It’s an effective balm in the wake of extreme darkness. Even John Oliver was a bit of a loss for words this past Sunday when he opened Last Week Tonight talking about the El Paso and Dayton shootings: “I’m sure we’re gonna learn more about this story in the weeks and months ahead, and there may be time to talk about it more in depth then. But until then, I do believe tonight we have prepared for you a dumb show about, I dunno, turnip subsidies or something […] But after a tough, tough day, please enjoy this nonsense.” He’s right: in times like this, it’s nice to have comfort food available to cope.
There is nothing on Joomanji’s 2013 record Maji that constitutes an easy hit. That might sound like a negative criticism, but it’s actually not intended to be. It’s another way of saying that there are no predictable shortcuts, pop-influenced formulas, or obvious pandering to mainstream genres even in their own lane. Primarily made up of three multi-instrumentalists joined by a rotating roster of special guest vocalists, a description of the band would have you predict they’d fit somewhere in between Morcheeba and the Sneaker Pimps — a nod to late ’90s trip hop — a format that has (unfortunately) largely disappeared in modern pop music. But I found myself comparing what I was hearing more to Erykah Badu and, in a very general sense, the handful of live soul shows I’ve seen. I believe it’s the production of the album which has this constant suggestion of being recorded as a live performance. I can’t quite put my finger on whether it’s the barely detectable and consistent reverb on the recording or simply the isolation of the keys as they seem almost jam-like in their gentle meandering on every track. This effect is most notable on “Sweet Music” which, for such a “light” song, could have been easily achieved with a simple loop of beats and melodies. Far from that however, the drummer takes a lot of very noticeable liberties, pattern changes, and seems to play off the horns, the keys, and nodding to the power of the vocals and horns by stepping off a few beats here and there to allow them room to move. In their absence, the snare hits become more plentiful and prominent while never breaking character and indulging in the brash smashing of the skins that modern pop music would demand. There’s no overbearing bass, and any vinyl samples which may be occurring seem to be relegated to the back of the room, little more than vinyl static or beat reversals. The key to the whole proceeding is subtly. Modern pop isn’t subtle. In today’s attention-is-oxygen, narcissistic bloodsport of appealing to the direction of trends, it’s really refreshing to hear a record which feels like you’re stepping out for a moment. You’re sliding into a space where a group of musicians has come together to express a positive message, and simple melodic soul jams which play like background music. “Free,” despite it’s soaring vocals and constantly rising trumpet section crescendos still somehow caresses, soothes and allows you a moment to exhale. “Spread Too Thin” is something of a highlight. Lindsay Olsen’s crazy vocal range manifests here as simultaneously high pitched, sultry and gentle — a rare talent. As with the rest of the record, it’s recorded beautifully subdued, in the mix with the keys and drums, in such a way that the band feels like a whole, live experience rather than backing for a vocalist’s prowess. Overall, Manj is a delight, a crystal-clear, easy-listening dalliance through soul, jazz, and just enough funk to ensure that the experience is punctuated by sudden involuntary hip movements.
Built on the back of wildly talented multi-instrumentalists, the core brilliance of Joomanji is easy to uncover.
Shopping for wooden teething toys today nearly did me in. Scrolling through sites bookmarked long ago, I found myself having the same debate I always did: wooden ones are better than plastic, but they’re heavier, so what if the baby smacks itself in the face? Curled up on the couch in the early morning gray light, weighing the benefits of one toy over another, I was thrown back 10 years when I was doing this for my daughters, not my soon-to-be nephew. In the same way that moment could bring a little tear to this mama’s eye, the jazzy, sun-drenched tracks of Joomanji’s Manj threw me back to my teenaged years and all the gorgeous hip-hop of that era. Pervasive through the album is a laziness that belies the musicianship happening on these songs. Deceptively slow, smooth, and chill, the tempo on most tracks forces you to be more calm, to revel in each warbled note, each long pull of the brass, each electro flourish. That unhurried pacing pulls together and makes cohesive an album with two variants of song: the more classical jazzy type and the faster hip-hop. On a track like “Toasted,” for example, where the very name pushes it closer to hip-hop and rap than other songs, the lyrics about getting high trip along over what is still a soulful musical production. Contrasted against a track like “Chasin Rhymes,” with its rain-patter percussion, shhh shhh, and Saara Maria’s wail, it might be easy to dismiss that connectivity, but every moment of this album sounds like Joomanji, sounds wanted, sounds like it belongs. Somewhere hanging in the tapestry of those electro sounds, heavy soulful vocals, and unhurried pacing are threads back to Lauren Hill, Erykah Badu, and other women that sung me through those dark teen years, placing them within a tradition of jazz, hip-hop, soul fusion/experimentation that provides context for an album that writes its own version of that story.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
As I write this, my two-year-old son is poking at our Cable-Nelson upright piano, which sits in the northwest corner of a room in our house that’s lined on three sides by records. The fourth holds guitars on hangers and a Metamodern Sounds In Country Music-era Sturgill Simpson poster. When I’m in this room, I’m surrounded by the music I love and reminders of the musical experiences I’ve had. I’m ensconced. I’m more myself than when I’m elsewhere. “Sweet Music” is such a perfect ode to this feeling, and not just because of expressions of devotion like “I’ll never lose you” and “You’re the air I breathe.” (Though I will say that when you put a bunch of second-hand records in a room together, music is the air you breathe in a whole other sense.) I love how the song’s first verse illustrates the nurturing role music can play in daily life. Saara Maria starts by singing “Stepping into this room / Full of fog / I can barely see the faces / I feel lost.” I feel that way in so many situations, and necessarily so. Life requires us to go out, push ourselves, meet new people, and take risks. That’s how we grow. But if you’re lucky, you have something that calls you back to center — something that helps you “see how it could all be clear to me.” Even luckier is the fact that headphones let you engage with that centering process anytime, anywhere. I listened to Manj while on a walk through my neighborhood on Saturday, and “Sweet Music” reminded me to close Twitter, put my phone back in my pocket, and actually look up for a change. At the blue sky, and at the familiar faces of the people who live nearby. I was open wide, accessing directly the joy available to me in that moment. I was surrounded. I was ensconced. I was myself again.
After a whirlwind trip to my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa to catch the one and only Slipknot in what is also their hometown, I got home and felt absolutely exhausted, but life doesn’t stop and I needed to rally and get some stuff done before the dreaded Monday came around. Honestly, I was thinking that this review may have to wait and I would just have to get back in the swing of things for next week’s article, but something in my heart told me that I needed to hear Manj by Joomanji and I needed to hear it now. Laid back and chill, I instantly felt a sense of calm and energy from this album. Smooth is the name of the game. From the vocals to the samples to the instrumentation, everything about this album is smooth making it an easy listen that instantly grabs you and sucks you in. Although these thirteen track is clearly all done by the same group of people (with a couple of collaborators here and there), every song has a new sound and brings an element in that has yet to be heard, keeping this album feeling fast paced while staying with a very chill vibe. I don’t know anyone listed on the credits of this album, but I will surely be digging into more from each of them because every element of Manj is a thing of beauty and I absolutely need more of it. Although I’ve now listened to it a couple of times through, it’s obvious that Manj still has some secrets hidden between the notes and I’m going to try my best to find all of them. Joomanji is a far cry from the maggot infested world of Slipknot that I got lost in over the weekend, but it was such the perfect group to snap me back to reality and prepare for what is sure to be an insane week.
Despite the many members & voices present, Manj is a uniform exercise in modern soul, and all of its cross-sections.
“Good for the Groove” is shorthand between me and my daughter for a certain kind of rhythmic, chill music that’s perfect for cocktails or the early stages of a party. It might get you moving, priming you for more danceable things to come, but you won’t break a sweat. It comes from one of two playlists I started building about 10 years ago for the New Year’s Eve festivities we sometimes attend across the street. The first is called NYE Groove and I set it up so I could just press play and walk away for the first few hours, or at least until 11:00 PM, when I would go into active DJ mode using the songs gathered in NYE Dance as my virtual crate of records. While the NYE Groove has expanded beyond songs like “A Grand Love Theme” by Kid Loco, “After The Dance (Instrumental)” by Marvin Gaye, or “Boss On The Boat” by Tosca, they remain the ne plus ultra of the Groove — and this whole Joomanji album would fit right in! Whether it’s the oozing tempos, glassy keyboards, languid horns, gently propulsive bass, spare percussion, or the soulful vocals, occasionally augmented with a relaxed rap, there’s nothing here to break the mood. The melodic gifts of the core trio of Jonah Christian (keyboard/piano, bass, production), Amir Oosman (drums/percussion), and Robert Finucane (keyboard/piano) are also well in evidence and may be the thing that keeps you coming back for more. A song like “Around The World” is nearly as grabby as something like Estelle’s “American Boy,” which it resembles slightly — and a melody that good is hard to find! Manj is consistent enough that I could have picked nearly any song to add to my playlist, but I chose “Spread Too Thin” for its sense of open space and the lush Fender Rhodes stylings throughout. I dropped it between MJ’s “Rock With You” and “Grown & Sexy” by Damian Marley and no surprise — it was indeed good for the Groove. P.S. While wondering why there have been no further Joomanji releases since 2013, keep up with Christian’s production work here.
My best friend came up to visit on Friday. One of the benefits of having a best friend that is autistic when you are, is that sometimes your Special Interests intersect. She’s fully aboard the fountain pen and ink obsession train with me right now, and on Friday, she showed up with vials of ink for me in CMYK tones so we could try mixing our own colours (as well as a bunch of little containers of mica in varying shades cause we fucking love sparkly inks). We spent several hours Friday night happily measuring out inks drop by drop while listening to a ’90s playlist I’d made a while ago, and then I spent Saturday night mixing more after my kids were in bed. I had Joomanji’s Manj on while I was doing this, and felt like it was absolutely perfect to listen to while doing arty things. I’ve been naming some of my colours after songs I think fit (so far I have “Orange Rolls, Angel’s Spit,” “Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots,” and “Bruise Violet”), and after staring semi-vacantly at the cover of Manj for a few minutes, I thought I’d like to mix a colour inspired by it (so many lovely shades of green, right). As I was finishing up and getting ready to swatch and see if I liked where it was at, the album started over and I heard “I’m just tryna do my own thing, makin’ somethin’ out of nothin'” and nodded, saying “Yes! That!” to myself. At which point my overly excited fingers fumbled the vial and I spilled my new, beautiful green all down the front of myself. I ran to the laundry room to throw my dress in the wash and started it right away, then tried to wash the ink off my torso and thighs — I failed, even after showering, it’s still there — before going back to see if there was anything left. There was. About a milliliter. Which I’ll add some mica to tomorrow, then ink up a pen, and write a letter to a friend with. Telling them the above story, and about this album, which I really did love.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
My first inclination when listening to the fluid dexterity and smooth ingenuity of Manj: recline back in my chair, close my eyes, and just enjoy the ataractic soul music flowing through my ears. I did just that during the first song — the swaying and buoyant “Somethin Out Of Nothin’” — but it didn’t take long for me to dart forward, looking for a pen to jot down a note. “Fiery” is what I wrote before assuming my previous position. Half a minute later, I dart back up again, this time scrawling “Explosive.” Before I even set down my pen, more thoughts came stirring up. “Tranquil electricity.” “Glossy complexity.” I actually do this a lot while evaluating records — I just jot down phrases and random thoughts and then try to string them together later on once I actually compose something. Most of my phrases end up on the cutting room floor, either because I can’t fit them in (“Glossy complexity” sounds super pretentious) or because they just don’t make sense when I look back over them (“Explosive” was a much better choice than “Fiery,” especially if I’m trying to highlight the combustible energy buried deep in these breezy rhythms). This time was different though. I was actively trying to shut off my brain and just enjoy the meditative compositions Joomanji was offering up. But I just couldn’t stop my brain from latching on to every little moment — the passive time signature, the intriguing chord changes, the meticulously errant horn tones, all of it. I’m sure the creators felt the same way while creating this: Already in control of this masterclass in luxurious soul music, but constantly adding more subtle garnishes to each song to make the sonic relaxation that much more enjoyable. But in a way, operating like that is a form of sonic relaxation… or, at least, it is to me. Being presented an otherwise straightforward, calming record and being amazed at the treasure trove of complexities underneath; that’s exactly what my restless mind wants to latch onto, giving me some relaxation today, even if it’s not what I would have imagined in the first place.
Baxter by Baxter
Chosen By Darryl Wright