Right off the bat, as the initial faux country chords from “Wildside” wobble in and out of phase before a delectable, backwater-bar groove rumbles into place, you know you’re in for something a little different, something special. Bassist Rob Wasserman, a longtime musical partner of Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir and creator of a much acclaimed trilogy of collaborative recordings (Solo, Duets, and Trios, involving artists as diverse as Aaron Neville, Rickie Lee Jones, Lou Reed, Bobby McFerrin, Bruce Hornsby, and Branford Marsalis), here ventures into new and richly satisfying musical terrain.
Playing a futuristic, six-string upright electric bass, Wasserman teams with producer Dave Aron to create a savvy, rhythm-heavy buffet of unexpected sounds, cross-pollinating dance, pop, jazz, even folk. Wasserman’s bass and Aron’s drum machine-sampler are responsible for almost every sound on Space Island (a vocal-free effort except for a few shrewdly positioned cameos by Wasserman), and their fanciful concoctions are a treat. Highlights: the growling groove that undergirds Wasserman’s laconic, grinning melody in “Wildside”; the clever blend of hip-hop rhythms and jazzy urban cool on the title track; the edgy, scratched-up “Feel the Bass”; the amber waves of gently grooving grain in “Prairie Song.” Best of the bunch: the irresistible, radio-ready “Hillbilly Hip Hop,” where Wasserman’s silly-but-articulate rap exhorts us to “Flap them arms around a lot” and to “Dance profoundly, not unsoundly.” Not everything works (“Ipanema” and “Nu Ballad” go nowhere), but the disc’s hits far outweigh its misses.