Music Business

Retro Tape Deck Review” Jamiroquai’s ‘Traveling Without Moving’

In 2020, I made the absurd decision to spend a ridiculous amount of money refurbishing the stock cassette tape player in my 1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, rather than invest the same sum installing a more modern audio system. I wanted to preserve my analog memories of enjoying music in my old school truck—no playlists, no song skipping, just listening to albums via an imperfect medium all the way through like I did out of necessity in my teenage years. These tape deck reviews reflect that specific listening experience as I revisit albums on their original terms.

The first Jamiroquai track I ever heard was ‘When You Gonna Learn,’ whose video was delivered straight into my early teenage living room courtesy of Quebec’s MusiquePlus cable channel, a relatively new addition to my household’s entertainment options in the early 1990s. When it came time for me to be sucked into the BMG ‘8 CDs For A Penny’ vortex shortly thereafter, I snagged both ‘Emergency on Planet Earth’ and ‘The Return Of The Space Cowboy’ as selections. The former delighted me with its mix of vibrant beats and varied instrumentation, while the latter kinda bummed me out with how low-energy it felt in comparison (something I would later learn was primarily tied to front man Jay Kay’s spiraling cocaine habit, which fed into a serious case of writer’s block).

Still, I was inspired enough to pick up ‘Traveling Without Moving’ as soon as it appeared in 1996, and was handsomely rewarded for my continued support of the band. By far my favorite of the group’s eight albums (and counting), ‘Traveling Without Moving’ delivered not just Jamiroquai’s greatest North American success (hitting #24 on the Billboard album charts after its original two records failed to make a dent), but also its defining single (and music video) in ‘Virtual Insanity.’

Although that particular track soon faded from my own personal playlist, much of the rest of ‘Traveling Without Moving’ stuck with me for the next decade or more. Heard through the context of my Jeep’s tape deck, today I still love the songs I’ve always loved, still want to fast forward the ones I don’t, and have largely made my peace with the group’s seemingly gratuitous use of the dijeridoo.

Side A

‘Virtual Insanity’ leads off the album, and if you were a music fan born any time between 1975 and 1990, chances are there was a period of your life where the music video for this track was absolutely inescapable.

Why the official Jamiroquai YouTube channel has elected to post a low-res 480i version of the song that almost made them a household name outside of their native Britain remains a mystery (as is why I can’t embed it here), but it doesn’t make much difference to me because my lizard brain long ago memorized every one of Jay Kay’s dance moves throughout its 3 minutes, 56 seconds of gentle funk preaching and scary bleeding furniture.

There’s no screen in my Grand Wagoneer, so I’ll skip a rehash of the vid’s impact. Instead, I’d rather examine the unlikely popularity of a song with this particular subject matter. Like so many Jamiroquai tracks of the ’90s, ‘Virtual Insanity’ focuses its eco-friendly lens on the general despoiling of planet Earth (and seemingly scientific overreach, based on lyrics that specifically address the idea of designer eugenics).

It’s a similar playbook to tracks like ‘When You Gonna Learn’ or ‘Emergency On Planet Earth,’ but the decision to wind down to a more R&B friendly level paid dividends in connecting with a broader audience. The song borrows inspiration from Jocelyn Brown’s 1984 release ‘Somebody Else’s Guy,’ but not enough to earn Brown a writing credit.

The inspiration for ‘Virtual Insanity’ was laid out in the liner notes on the 20th anniversary re-release of ‘Traveling Without Moving,’ where Jay Kay describes a snow-filled walk through the streets of Sendai, Japan, where he and band mate Toby Wallis didn’t ‘encounter another human soul’ until they’d walked a half-mile through the city. It was then that they were told by a helpful local that everyone had sought refuge in the vast underground metropolis that served as a refuge during the harsh winter months, a visit to which blew both of their minds.

Jay Kay says that ‘Virtual Insanity’ was ‘the first thing written and the last thing recorded for the album,’ and it made it onto the final track listing at the behest of record company execs who didn’t hear any other singles in what had already been committed to tape. Although I loved it back when it was fresh, after listening it one more time on cassette I think I’m good for another decade or so.

The rest of Side A, however, still manages to hook me, and hook me deep. Much of ‘Traveling Without Moving’ moves away from the acid jazz umbrella that was commercial poison as the early-90s faded into the rearview, and instead embraced a more dance floor-friendly esthetic, one that the band felt embraced a ‘more international’ esthetic. The next track, ‘Cosmic Girl,’ presents a perfect blend of house-oriented organ vamps, disco orchestral strings, and funk guitar, riding along on a high octane bassline that mainlines Jay Kay’s interstellar booty call vocals straight to the dopamine receptors. It’s an incredible song that remains just as fresh and fun as the day it was released.

It’s also remarkably different in almost everything but energy from the song that follows it. ‘Use The Force’ is bar-none my favorite Jamiroquai recording, a fully-instrumented funk jam that repurposes the organ and guitar from disco to Dazz Band, locking into a groove that I simply can’t get enough of.  ‘Traveling Without Moving’ was recorded in what Jay Kay described as a residential studio that had none of the distractions (read: easy access to drugs and partying) that had marred the ‘Space Cowboy’ sessions. ‘The vibe was great, there was great camaraderie in the band, we were getting more and more confident and we were having fun,’ he wrote in the album’s liner notes. ‘They were good, good times and that comes across on the tracks.’

‘Use The Force’ is perhaps the clearest distillation of exactly this sentiment on the entire album. Weirdly, it was written on request for the Euro ’96 football competition, which ended up being responsible for its vintage percussion track and the lack of highly-processed production, as the group drew from South American soccer songs of the ’70s. Even stranger? The Euro ’96 compilation album also contain tracks like ‘Disco 2000’ from Pulp, ‘Alright’ by Supergrass, and Blur’s ‘Parklife,’ which also have absolutely nothing to do with kicking a ball, but everything to do with the power of Britpop in that era, a pressure that various record execs would unsuccessfully lob at Kay during various points in the ‘Traveling Without Moving’ recording process.

Take that funk family cohesion and slow it down by half, and you end up with ‘Everyday,’ which pumps the brakes on the cassette’s first set of songs. It’s a simple, straightforward love song that I used to skip every single time on my original CD. Today, a quarter-century more mellow, I sit back and simply enjoy the smooth ride.

Of course, there’s no shame in fast-forwarding ‘Everyday’ to get to ‘Alright,’ another album highlight. Like ‘Cosmic Girl,’ it’s an ultra-tight R&B-tinged dance track whose anchoring bassline hit Jay Kay while he was taking care of business at a urinal during some studio downtime. According to Kay, the track came together in about 5 minutes post-bladder drain. It’s an excellent track, and the link to ‘Cosmic Girl’ is more than just a coincidence, as both songs were intended to showcase a ‘less is more’ attitude towards recording that avoided drowning momentum and punch under extraneous instrumentation.

Although it’s the sixth track listed on ‘Traveling Without Moving,’ ‘High Times’ was recorded before anything else, and it’s easy to see why. Lyrically, it’s an exorcism for the drugged-out sophomore slump that plagued ‘Space Cowboy,’ a way for him to face himself and come to terms with how his lifestyle was threatening to torpedo the band’s chances at greater success. Musically, it moves back and forth between a harder-edged verse and a more polished chorus, not unlike the pendulum swings between fixing and needing to fix. Jay Kay might have needed another eight years or so to fully kick, but ‘High Times’ showed a personal self-awareness that had been absent in previous Jamiroquai work.

A little bit of filler to wrap up the first side of the record, ‘Drifting Along’ is a fine, if aimless bit of reggae wandering.

Side B

Things get a little murkier on the second side of ‘Traveling Without Moving.’ Starting off with nearly four minutes of meandering didgeridoo on ‘Didjerama’ did nothing for me back in the day, and this is continues to be the case. Doubling down on that with another six minute didgeri-soundscape via ‘Didjital Vibrations’ creates the weakest one-two punch on the entire album. I’ve always loved high energy Jamiroquai and tolerated the more seductive, slowed-down side of the band’s songwriting, and these two songs are the perfect encapsulation of everything I’m not interested in hearing from them.

Fortunately, the third and title track more than makes up for this pair of personal taste digressions. A not-so-serious song about driving too fast, it’s a modern update on the vibrancy of ‘Use The Force,’ with a super-strong bassline pulsing through the entire recording and pushing it nearly to the top of the performances on the record.

This is followed up by ‘You Are My Love,’ a coy plea from one lover to another to kiss and make up after yet another disagreement. More ear candy than filler, which would become a Jamiroquai trademark moving forward, and a strong contrast to the ballad that wraps up the record, ‘Spend A Lifetime,’ a song I only very occasionally have the patience for.

Sadly, there’s a song that I absolutely wore out on CD back in the day, but which was dropped from the cassette release. ‘Do You Know Where You’re Coming From,’ produced in collaboration with British junglist M-Beat, was actually the first single from ‘Traveling Without Moving’ despite being included as an unlisted bonus track across the Atlantic. It’s fantastic, and every time this tape comes to a close I miss hearing it.

Do I Really Love This Album?

After a re-listen with a more critical ear, it’s pretty clear that I’m actually not a huge fan of the band’s third record. It’s more accurate to say that I’m absolutely in love with six of its tracks (with retroactive big-ups to ‘Virtual Insanity’), which to me represent peak Jamiroquai from the era in which that particular line-up was at the height of its creative powers.

I’m completely fine with that reassessment, as Jamiroquai are a group that I’ve always picked-and-chosen from when it came to individual songs versus full-length efforts. When encountered in cassette form it’s a little harder to adopt that same approach, and sitting through interminable didgeridoo interludes gave me plenty of time to revisit my original thoughts on the album.

I do want to say one thing, however: I was fortunately too young when Jamiroquai first hit the scene to have an awareness of the whole ‘these guys are just ripping off [insert your favorite soul/funk artist from the 70s here]’ dismissal that was routinely leveled not just at this band, but at others like Lenny Kravitz. Anyone who dared to recontextualize the past from a modern perspective was hit hard by the Boomer-stick that served as music criticism in the ’80s and ’90s, and it really sucks to think of how many potential fans were put off by this absurd characterization before they had the chance to hear the music and evaluate it on its own merits.

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