Trombone Shorty: “For True”
Troy Andrews appeared on a few episodes of HBO’s Treme last season, and every time he was on screen I couldn’t help but wish I could make a trip down to New Orleans to see him (or, really, any of the performers– Wendell Pierce’s fictional Soul Apostles group included) in their natural habitat. Andrews, who performs as Trombone Shorty, is perhaps as emblematic as anyone of the hip but historically-aware New Orleans music scene that Treme and Shorty’s own brilliant Backatown record have brought into the popular imagination, and if Kermit Ruffins gets the funnier and flashier scenes on the show, it’s Shorty whose records most effectively channel the genre-defying fusion of rock, brass, hip-hop, blues, and funk that makes NOLA’s music scene so incredibly combustible. That in mind, I think Shorty’s second post-Treme album, released just over a year after Backatown, is just the kind of record he ought to have made right now. It may not channel history as vividly as, say, Allen Toussaint’s masterpiece The Bright Mississippi, it may not break ground like Backatown, and it may not even have the same addictive, expansive energy as Galactic’s Ya-Ka-May, but For True is the album that best seems to capture the blistering energy and momentum of a sweaty, brass-fueled rave-up at some hole-in-the-wall New Orleans club. On those terms, it’s pretty close to perfect.
It’s a different album than the one that came before it, though it may take a listen or two for those differences to sink in. Backatown caught us all off guard– at least, those of us paying attention. There’s never been anything like it before, nothing to boast such a volatile and vibrant concoction of sounds old and new, of rock and funk and Mardi Gras-ready line music. For True is less shocking, and maybe even a little less eclectic. But it’s also tighter and more confident. It’s tougher, fueled by improvisation but strengthened by a stronger sense of song. Since the last album, Shorty and his Orleans Avenue band have been steadily touring, popping in on Treme from time to time, and generally honing their skills. If Backatown was New Orleans put through a kaleidoscope, For True is New Orleans condensed into one fist-pumping, sing-yourself-hoarse night of rock and soul and brass. What both albums share is that they’re packed with explosive ideas, but those ideas seem sharper here.
Hip-hop is a more prominent force than it was on the last album, which may simply be the result of the record being tailor made to get heads bobbing in clubs and bars and concert halls. Hip-hop is all over the place, though, and it makes itself known in the fiery opening number, “Buckjump,” featuring a boom-bap rhythm and dancefloor-ready lines from the Rebirth Brass Band. It’s there, too, in the electrifying, funky rock tune, “Mrs. Orleans,” a sassy, sweaty love song with a surprisingly effective, NOLA-worshipping rap from Kid Rock, of all people.
Rock, soul, and even the blues coarse through the album’s veins, which is nothing new for Shorty; what is new, perhaps, is the way he allows these different styles room to stretch out and make themselves known apart form the thick gumbo of sounds he’s known for. Which is not to say that anything here is ever simple or straightforward. The first single, “Encore,” feature scorching electric guitar from Warren Haynes, soulful brass punctuation, and a hovering B-3 organ that grounds it in muscular funk; that it was co-written by Motown legend Lamont Dozier is unsurprising but not unimpressive. It’s a hot track, and so is the horn-drenched rock sing-along “Do to Me,” which has guitar work from Jeff Beck; working on a completely different level is the title cut, which is really straight-up jazz improv locked into a hip-hop beat, with a terrific trumpet line from Andrews. The album is star-studded– as feature-rich as a modern hip-hop album, which is surely the intent– but it’s never overly flashy; Shorty’s sense of showmanship, and his tight songcraft, leave plenty of room for pyrotechnics but not for needless showboating. The best use of guest musicians here may actually be the two Neville Brothers who show up for the jittery, jazzy funk “Nervis,” a mostly-wordless cut that somehow ends up being one of the most evocative and memorable things here.
Shorty himself sings most of these songs, and he proves himself to be a more consistently strong vocal presence here than he was last time; Backatown hinted at his hidden strengths as a soul singer, but it didn’t quite prepare us for him standing toe-to-toe with Lenny Kravitz in the funky mid-tempo cut “Roses.” But of course, he’s smart enough to leave the real showstopping soul singing to a real, showstopping soul singer; Ledesi provides the album’s obvious crescendo in the knockout love ballad “Then There Was You,” a song built out of old-fashioned R&B but decked out with a thoroughly-modern flair for tearing the roof off the joint. It’s the kind of finale you’d expect– nay, demand– from any good New Orleans club show.
And if it seems like I’m harping on the club aspect, it’s only because For True really is a club-worthy banger, structured like a great concert and flowing with the kind of momentum that makes Shorty’s blasts of fusion that much more addictive. It’s a strong and mightily entertaining record that might even top his previous achievements, and leaves no doubt that Trombone Shorty is one of the hardest-working, most forward-thinking bandleaders, songwriters, and performers working today– in New Orleans or any other town you care to name.