Back to the Treme

I’ve written quite a lot about the vitality of New Orleans as a musical locale and focal point in 2010, but only a little about the excellent soundtrack to David Simon’s New Orleans-set HBO drama Treme, a show that was, I suspect, partially responsible for the sudden surge of great pop records, either from or about that wonderful city, over the past ten or twelve months. To be honest, the album, fine though it is, isn’t one that immediately captured my attention in the way that some of those others did, but it’s with repeated listening– and the arrival of a physical copy, complete with a fine, thorough set of liner notes– that I begin to realize just how special the album is; in fact, at this point I’d place it close to the top of the heap. Its sheer breadth and the diversity of its roster makes it a more ambitious and eclectic set than the excellent new offerings from Trombone Shorty or Dr. John, just to give two examples, while, simply on the level of personal taste, I think I’m a bit more drawn to it than the wonderful Galactic record simply because its greater adherence to the history and the sacred music of the city make it feel a bit more rooted and real than the party-record vibe of Ya-Ka-May.

In fact, its sense of rootedness in tradition and culture make it feel, more and more, like a peculiarly essential tapestry of sounds and styles associated with New Orleans; the analogy that’s becoming increasingly hard for me to avoid is to call this the New Orleans equivalent of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, for, like that record, this one takes a sort of cross-section approach to its chosen idiom and conjures, with beautiful and astounding clarity, the spirit of the music it’s celebrating. That said, this one is more a celebration of a place, where O Brother was really about a particular strand of musical history; as a result, the Treme set is wider-ranging but also messier, its loose ends making it an appealing musical approximation of a city and a family of musics that are organic, in flux, growing and changing. To that end, there are a lot of songs here that I’d call “pop” songs only insofar as they’re fairly structured and self-contained, but also some shorter numbers that really just qualify as snippets, some instrumental pieces, and a few tasteful archival cuts mixed in, seamlessly, among the new recordings, all of it coming together not neatly but with real flair and a clear sense of wonder at all the moving parts of New Orleans’ musical history.

This set is noticeably more grounded in the city’s past than either the Shorty or Galactic records, both of which offered metallic fusions of the city’s musical roots with its forward-thinking present, resulting in songs that straddled the fence between rock and swing, or brought the city’s hip bounce culture to traditional line music. There’s some of that here, but also a great number of tracks that simply revel in the timelessness of New Orleans brass, jazz, and funk music– all played with the sort of spirit and grit that speak to a history that’s still being written, tradition that still informs the everyday and shapes the face of things to come. To that end, it’s worth noting that this set has a foundation in the song “Indian Red,” arguably the best-loved of all New Orleans standards, at least in some circles, and a rousing anthem of pride in the city and its culture; it’s rendered three times here, each in a different way, each respectful of history, each showing what a living, breathing, still-malleable thing the song still is. Dr. John’s version is just a killer, full-band barn-burner– perhaps the best song he’s cut this year, which is saying something; Clarke Peters, an actor in the show, leads a ghostly chant version; and Donald Harrison, Jr. finishes the trifecta with a rousing, instrumental jazz version that could have been a highlight on most any jazz side from the 50s or 60s.

All that being said, there are songs here that speak more explicitly to the city’s changing face and the way its historic music doesn’t fade away or remain stagnant, but instead evolves into fresh new expressions. Just about my favorite thing here, I think, is a recording by the Free Agents Brass Band called “We Made it Through the Water,” which sort of adheres to some of the patterns of second-line music and New Orleans funk but also dips into hip-hop with a rapped verse that is legitimately good as MCing, not just a novelty, and ends with a stirring riff off of an old gospel standard. The song is just as hot as can be, not only for its musical acumen but also for its heart, which incorporates all the themes of this record, and really of all the crop of terrific New Orleans albums from this year: A love for a culture, for a city as a geographic and spiritual focal point that’s honored precisely because of its elusiveness, its warts-and-all soulfulness; a sense of political indignation, of lingering wounds and scarcely-buried anger, that bubbles over when memories of Katrina and its aftermath are rekindled; and a sense of determination that moves well past mere obstinacy into something genuinely inspiring.

On the political tip, I should note that the album doesn’t hide its affections or its leanings– this is a David Simon project, after all– and there is, less than halfway through the record, a delightfully zippy take on Smiley Lewis’ New Orleans R&B classic “Shame, Shame, Shame,” performed by actor Steve Zahn and remodeled as a rather vicious dark comedy satire of the Bush administration’s handling of Katrina, complete with crass impersonations of the Bush family members and a foul-mouthed, firebrand sense of moral outrage. Some, I suppose, will think it a tad preachy; personally, I find good old-fashioned moral outrage to be both useful and rare enough that I’m generally fairly delighted no matter where it pops up, and Zahn’s tune is a real hoot regardless.

At any rate, the charms of this disc lie largely in how it simply refuses to clean up or organize a place, and a spirit, that are simply too messy, too teeming with life, to be anything other than sprawling, full of loose ends and diversions. Which is to say, the beauty of this record is in its moment-to-moment appeal, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t note a few more favorites: The lovely Irma Thomas, who really can do no wrong in my book, teams with the equally unimpeachable Allen Toussaint on keys for a stone killer soul belter called “Time is on My Side,” while Wendell Pierce– another actor from the show; Wire fans know him as The Bunk– goes the complete opposite route for an endearingly sweet, rough, and intimate slice-of song in “I Don’t Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You.” There are some delightful brass band funk tunes here, including some guest spots for Kermit Ruffins and Trombone Shorty, and there’s also a sweet song– basically a love song for the city, where even something as catastrophic as a hurricane is sort of smiled on as just another part of the character of the place– called “I Hope You’re Comin’ Back to New Orleans,” performed by the New Orleans Jazz Vipers. It’s a song for the city, yes, but also for its citizens; it’s a homecoming call that really gets to me even though I’ve never called New Orleans home, which I suppose is as good an argument as any for the power of this music not as a geographically-specific but rather a spiritually-generous tribute album, and, simply as a listening experience, a sheer pleasure.

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