Three months in and there’s already been plenty of good stuff– including three records that very well might, in fact, stand as my three 2012 favorites when December rolls around. Two of those three are only now releasing, in the month of April, and my full reviews are forthcoming. Naturally, their presence here can be taken as a very strong endorsement indeed.
01. Black Radio
Robert Glasper Experiment
03. Locked Down
Vijay Iyer Trio
05. Release Me
06. Leaving Eden
Carolina Chocolate Drops
07. Radio Music Society
08. Young Man in America
09. I Will Set You Free
10. Carnivale Electricos
“I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s,” writes Hugh Laurie, in introduction to– and, perhaps, defense of– his first album as a recording artist, Let Them Talk. He continues, “I’ve never eaten grits, cropped a share, or ridden a boxcar. No gypsy woman said anything to my mother when I was born and there’s no hellhound on my trail, as far as I can judge. Let this record show that I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south.”
It’s with this sort of faux-apology that Laurie does his best to explain who he is and why he’s made this music– American music, yes, and blues music to boot. The liner notes and even the record’s title suggest a sort of preemptive defusing of a critical drumming, one that has less to do with the quality of the music itself than with a rather nebulous idea of “authenticity.” After all, news of the album’s existence broke at around the same time Laurie was outed as TV’s highest-paid actor– hardly a great circumstance from which a white British thespian might launch an album that stomps through the province of impoverished, elderly black men– and besides, he has been a comedian and actor for so long now that the British press is likely to feel a certain sense of bewilderment at the very notion of him stepping out of the comfy box in which they’ve asked him to remain. I understand why the man would feel apprehensive, and I am genuine in my hope that his sly defense strategy is as effective as it needs to be.
But I am overjoyed to discover that the whole this is rather unnecessary. The album speaks for itself, and it’s as smokin’ hot an American roots album as anyone could hope to hear in 2011– and this I say without qualification; it isn’t just a good effort from an actor-gone-recording-star, but a stirring and singular work that finds easy company in recent albums by Dr. John and Allen Toussaint (“real” musicians!). I invoke these two names intentionally, as both are stalwarts of the New Orleans music scene– embodying the spirit of that place better than any two living people, perhaps– and both offer their own contributions to Laurie’s album, which may have something to do with shoring up some serious Crescent City cred or may simply stem from the truth that they’re both remarkable musicians, and who wouldn’t want to have them play on his recording debut? Let Them Talk bears an especially acute spiritual bond to Toussaint’s recent work The Bright Mississippi, partly because the two albums share the same producer and many of the same musicians and even some of the same songs, but mostly because it captures a certain joyful revelry in the city and music of New Orleans, rending it in all its inherent strangeness and glory, the full weight of history at its back but never at the detriment of the music’s own liveliness and present-day resonance. Laurie’s album is, in short, as fine a summation of New Orleans’ spirit as any of ’em, whether he’s a native or not. So let them talk: They will find no easy criticisms, at least none based on the music itself.
The specifics are these: Laurie cut the whole thing with producer Joe Henry and an assortment of his typical Garfield House players (though it’s worth noting that they went off-site for this project, seemingly without compromise to their usual spirit of camaraderie). He sang and played piano on every scrap of this thing– even Dr. John, Laurie’s long-time piano idol, is invited only for a vocal cameo, seemingly at Henry’s insistence that this be Laurie’s album all the way. And the whole thing is killer from top to bottom. The sessions are imbued with live-on-the-floor intimacy and spontaneity. Laurie really shines from behind the piano– but of course, that was never really in question; music has been a big part of what he’s done on A Bit of Fry and Laurie and even House, so this project has never been about him proving his musical chops, but rather his passion for the music of New Orleans. On that front he couldn’t have picked a better musical partner: Henry’s albums are all about stripping away the excess to reveal the hidden truth of the matter, and the truth here really seems to be that this stuff speaks to Hugh Laurie– and here, it speaks to us, through him.
Taken in that light, the closing number, “Let Them Talk,” seems less a defensive gesture and more a love letter to this music– this culture– itself. “Swanee River” is another key track– a song Laurie remembers from his adolescent piano lessons, rendered here as a gloriously ragged full-band rave. More than once on the track you can hear Laurie give way to giddy laughter, his sheer revelry in this material carrying him away– and it’s perhaps the greatest sound you’ll hear on the entire record, which is no slight to the music itself. As to the rest of the track selection, Joe Henry wisely guides his protege through a series of blues songs– most of which are associated, in some form or fashion, with the city of New Orleans– and a few New Orleans R&B tunes, and shrewdly avoids tipping the scale in either direction. The album doesn’t lean too far in the direction of the blues– not to the extent of the mortality-courting record Henry produced for Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, for instance– but neither does it overplay its intentions to do the Crescent City justice; there are no references to levees or hurricanes or Mardi Gras here, no rendition of “When the Saints” or “My Indian Red.” They are songs that speak, in different ways, to joy and grief, heartache and happiness, and they speak in the shades of humor and idiosyncrasy that you’ll only find in American roots music. (Indeed, it’s easy to see why these wonderfully weird and deeply human selections would appeal to a born storyteller like Laurie; he sings all three parts in “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” using different voices, and if I say he approaches these songs like an actor, I don’t mean it as an affront to his chops as a blues singer, but rather as high praise for his instincts as a raconteur.)
Joe Henry’s albums all play like complete sentences, and this one is no exception. It begins with an almost symphonic overture, a stunning and epic take on “St. James Infirmity” that plays up what a weird and brutally beautiful song that really is, and gives notice that this record is serious business; if Laurie wanted crossover pop success, or indeed, if his intentions were anything other than sincere, one imagines he’s never begin his record on a note so bold. It ends as perfectly as it begins; “Let Them Talk” is a Valentine to this music, and in its own way plays like the mirror-image follow-up to that first song, small and intimate where the opener is rather grand but equally earnest in its tribute to American song. (I should also note that you don’t have to buy into my theory that the song’s sentiment is directed at the music of New Orleans; it is a lovely and striking thing on the level of a human love song as well.) Between the two, there’s plenty of local color, heart, history, and humanity. “They’re Red Hot” is a lark, a song too brief to be considered a highlight but irresistible in the little bump-in-the-road it provides for this program; I assume it’s here because it’s fun and fast-paced and old-timey, and because it provides Laurie a chance to sing about hot tamales. Dr. John brings memorable grit to his vocal turn on “After You’re Gone,” and there are soulful cameos from Irma Thomas and Sir Tom Jones, as well; I don’t think their help was enlisted because Laurie needed the help– he’s a fine singer– nor do I think this music needed to has its authenticity validated– it’s self-evident. I think, simply, that these singers were available; that the spirit of New Orleans is a communal one, so why not invite some friends to the celebration; and that Laurie’s ambitions for this project are solely divorced from ego or vanity, so I suspect he had no problem yielding the mike for a few turns.
Henry, for his part, brings to each song exactly what it needs, and complements Laurie’s own storytelling gifts; he enlists Toussaint to arrange horn charts for several numbers, and the brass section is especially welcome on a strutting R&B number like “You Don’t Know My Mind.” I am pleased to hear Joe Henry– a man whose calling card has always been a stripped-to-the-bone simplicity– avoid going the way of T-Bone Burnett and fetishizing sparseness just for sparseness’ sake, instead bringing a fullness to these songs that sets it apart from his other productions. That said, he doesn’t overindulge. “Police Dog Blues” is constructed from voice and guitar alone, a perfect showcase for the song’s comedic bent– truly, it’s a perfect fit for Laurie– and he brings an austere touch to “Six Cold Feet in the Ground,” a blues song that looks to the grave and would be rather too expected on a more introspective or fatalistic record by an older, veteran artist, but here provides a haunting counterpart to its livelier surroundings.
Of course Laurie and Henry both know that a song like that isn’t strictly the property of those nearing the end of life; the song fits Laurie’s purposes here just as well as do “Battle of Jericho” and “The Whale Has Swallowed Me,” two songs steeped in gospel. To the best of my knowledge Laurie is not a religious man, but these are evocative and universal stories whether you’re taking them as biblical narratives or as blues songs, and they’re as much a part of American myth and music– and New Orleans history– as anything else here. The arrangements here have red blood flowing through their veins, the same blood that keeps “John Henry” from being a mere historical artifact– it’s no relic, but a swinging and deeply soulful tall tale– and indeed, the same blood that allows Laurie and Henry to construct “Tipitana”– one of those sacred New Orleans songs that a more cautious duo wouldn’t have touches– into a masterful build-up, a monument to the music and the feel of this place as a cultural, spiritual, and geographic center.
But then, you could say the same of the project as a whole. This is not, I don’t think, intended to be a musical approximation of Laurie’s own biography; scanning these selections for insight into his own life and career might yield some very general anecdotes, but the point of this record, I’m inclined to say, is music for its own sake– and this music swings mightily, with joy and with deep feeling. Laurie remains a white British thespian, and I suspect that his bank account will not greatly be affected by the sales of this album, whether it’s a blockbuster or a bomb. But these are his blues as much as anyone else’s; he has every right to sing these songs and to pull them off without artifice, something this record proves beyond any reasonable doubt.
A new year, a new T-Bone Burnett joint– and this one with no dearth of truth in advertising. This one is what is says it is, and if you’ve ever heard a blues album, there’s nothing here that will surprise: It’s one of the great singers in classic rock, performing a bunch of old blues stalwarts, the man behind O, Brother and B.B. King’s One Kind Favor at the board and an ace band, including Dr. John, cooking behind him. Yes indeed: You can guess at what this one sounds like. But the element of surprise, as it turns out, isn’t always necessary for true revelation: Low Country Blues is a truly fine record, and, in fact, a high watermark for all parties involved.
I’ll give T-Bone credit for this above all else– he knows how important the sound of a recording is, and I’d argue that that’s never truer than when dealing with the blues. Happily, this is one of my favorite-sounding Burnett productions, as it largely eschews the sort of analog approximation that makes some of his work sound rather affected. This one is loose, clean, simple, and open, and recalls nothing so much as the B.B. King album mentioned above. If there are also some trace hints of his work with, say, John Mellencamp, that probably has more to do with the players assembled than with the production itself, like the way Jay Bellerose’s percussion rattles through the background of “Floating Bridge” like a train of ghosts. The thing is simply unobtrusive, though; when you’re recording a group of blues songs that are pretty well-known to most fans of the genre, the album lives or dies by how hot the performances are and how vividly their energy is captured on tape, and this one bottles every last bit of the heat.
The musicians, meanwhile, play like their lives depend on it– which might actually be sort of close to the truth, at least as far as Allman is concerned. The sessions for this album took place after he underwent a liver transplant, but if death is on his mind, it only rears its head in roundabout ways– like the fact that the album begins with “Floating Bridge,” a song about a near-death experience throwing everything into a new light, or the way in which the Allman original “Just Another Rider” is sort of an existential road song, reflective but not ponderous. And indeed, there’s nothing ponderous about any of this; as with the B.B. King album, any morbidity or introspection the singer might feel takes a back seat to the kick of the music and the awesome, simmering grooves of the band. “Floating Bridge” transitions, with the playful sound of an organ, into the driving jump blues of “Little by Little,” a nasty little heartbreak number with a terrifically powerful, snarling vocal from the singer– as if to say that this is the work that still seems worth doing, the stuff that still matters on some basic level.
So that’s the refreshing thing about all this: It’s an album from a veteran rocker that stands not as a genre exercise, not as a near-death reflection, not as a comeback or even a last will and testament, simply, wonderfully, a smokin’-hot blues album. Neither singer nor producer needs to lend the proceedings any sort of artificial importance, because that’s not what makes this music stick; it’s all about being deeply felt, and played with vigor, which, to be sure, everything here is. It’s a celebration of the blues, really– which may sound a bit paradoxical at first, but there’s real joy to this music, even though it’s all about deceitful women and broken hearts, about life’s weary road and the admission of sin.
Standout songs? Well, pick one. I love the brassy, tough-as-nails but still swingin’ strut of “Blind Man,” a high point not just for Allman as a singer but also for Dr. John, who does indeed swing throughout this album, his piano bringing energy and physicality to everything here– yes, in much the same we it did on One Kind Favor. I love the playfulness of “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” with its tight piano, guitar, and percussion interplay. I love how “Please Accept My Love” blurs the line between blues and old-timey rock ballad, how it shimmers and sways. I love the little dash of New Orleans flavoring on “Floating Bridge”– naturally, a Dr. John innovation.
All to say, this is one of those records that could prove to be a perfect career capstone, even if it never presents itself as one. My hope, though, is that it’s more like a new beginning. There are a lot of great songs in the blues canon, and even if we’ve heard ’em all before, the triumph of Low Country Blues is that it reminds us of how smashing they still sound once re-invigorated with the right amount of heat. I’d be more than glad to get a second helping.
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.
Not so very long ago, Paste ran a feature listing five great tribute albums devoted to the city and musical legacy of New Orleans– pulling off the neat trick of highlighting one of my own favorite musical trends of 2010 and supporting their argument with a completely separate set of examples than I might have picked. There have, to be sure, been a number of ambitious compilation albums celebrating New Orleans’ musical legacy, many of them pitched as straightforward, post-Katrina charity projects. And a lot of those records are pretty good.
My favorite Crescent City celebrations of the last year or so, though, have been a little less directly socially- and politically-tilted, instead simply celebrating the city and its musical past and present, their homage not explicit but inherent. So I’ve come up with a short list of my own: Six reasons why New Orleans is shining as bright and ever in 2010– and why the city’s music still inspires.
Trombone Shorty and the Galactic crew
To some extent these are interchangeable; Galactic released a new album called Ya-Ka-May in February which featured Shorty’s dynamite playing, and he released his own record as a bandleader a few months later, produced by Galactic’s Ben Ellman. On their own, the two albums are both dynamite, sharing the same Mardi Gras spirit and line-music festivity, the same metallic sheen but soulful center; together, they paint a picture of a city whose music scene is always looking forward. If you think New Orleans’ musical legacy begins and ends at Preservation Hall, think again; there’s music here– “sissy” rappers and bounce, mind-boggling fusions of jazz, pop, funk, and hip-hop– that, unless you’re a local and are especially hip to their scene, is probably like nothing you’ve heard before.
At the other end of the spectrum, here’s a man who embodies– more than anyone alive, perhaps– the musical heritage of New Orleans. And his latest, called Tribal, is a wonderfully complete synthesis of John’s trademark smooth soul and R&B, late-night funk and rock and roll swing. It’s a monument to the man, Dr. John, and to the city that inspires him– spiritual homage, musical history, wonderfully alive and in-the-moment recording.
Ever since his post-Katrina collaboration with Elvis Costello— the tremendous, Joe Henry-produced The River in Reverse— Toussaint has become the patron saint of New Orleans music. He’s appeared as a featured musician on both the Galactic and Trombone Shorty albums this year, and brought a certain New Orleans flavor to the latest album from Cyndi Lauper. And his songs have appeared on– yep– Trombone Shorty’s album, but also Mavis Staples’ and Dr. John’s.
David Simon’s New Orleans-set HBO drama has done more than a little to elevate the standing of the city’s music scene in the broader culture; and if there’s any doubt about the communal nature of said scene, would you believe that an episode of the show features cameos from Costello and Toussaint, recording The River in Reverse? Or that the soundtrack album– due later this month, and featuring an outstanding of of traditional, spirited Crescent City brass and roots music– features contributions from not only some of the show’s cast members, but also Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, and Trombone Shorty?
The R&B legend turns toward old spirituals and gospel numbers for his latest, I Know I’ve Been Changed— but he also turns toward his New Orleans roots, recruiting– who else?– Allen Toussaint to anchor the studio band on a sturdy upright piano. The songs often sound like they could have been cut live on a Sunday morning in an old Baptist church, but Toussaint brings a bit of swing to the proceedings. Joe Henry produced this excellent set– and speaking of which…
Henry seems as responsible as anyone in bringing Toussaint back into the public eye. He produced the Neville album, too, and is currently working on a New Orleans blues album with Hugh Laurie. Rumor has it a few of the city’s musical pioneers will show up to play along– and don’t be surprised if that includes a few names that are featured elsewhere on this list.
But of course there’s a new Dr. John album in 2010, a year in which celebrating the culture and musical legacy of the Big Easy has been a thread running through major releases– a year that gave us Mardi Gras-ready party albums by Trombone Shorty and the Galactic Crew, to name but a couple. In the years following Hurricane Katrina, the music of New Orleans has been flowering, and it’s in full blossom in 2010; and of course, the music of Dr. John is the music of New Orleans. Why wouldn’t he jump into the celebration? How could he resist?
But John’s Tribal is a celebration of a slightly different sort. It isn’t City That Care Forgot— though it’s clearly rooted in the same post-Katrina awareness, and some of that album’s sobering political themes are once again in play, it’s a much more celebratory and varied release than that one– but neither is it cut from the same cloth as Shorty’s Backatown or Galactic’s Ya-ka-may. Those albums are very much of a piece– they feature many of the same musicians– and they’re all about looking forward to the city’s bright musical future; their roots are as much in hip-hop as they are in more traditional New Orleans idioms like jazz and R&B. John’s vision lays in a slightly different direction– it isn’t looking backward, really, so much as it’s taking stock, consolidating everything he’s done and acting as a remarkably assured and complete career summary– which, of course, doubles as a pretty good primer on the last fifty years or so of New Orleans popular music.
Working once again with his hot Lower 911 unit– who anchor everything here in tight, in-the-pocket grooves– John relishes in his gift of merging smooth New Orleans soul, rock, R&B, hoodoo blues, and even jazz expressions into something seamless and whole. This is a thick, intoxicating sonic brew that really cooks from the first note to the last, drenched in organ, punctuated by horns, adorned in loving but spare string arrangements. There are after-hours lounge grooves, and rowdier numbers that would have rocked any nightclub in the pre-rap era. And there are spookier elements, as well– eerie organ vamps that highlight the city and the performer’s more eccentric qualities.
It’s an album about Dr. John, and, by extension, it’s an album about New Orleans– or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, it stands tall as a career highlight and summary, as well as a reflection of a city’s culture, its music, its politics, and its ecology. That John would begin the album with a party invitation called “Feel Good Music” is both completely unsurprising and oddly comforting; the title summarizes everything John’s ever done, and the song could have introed basically any of his recordings, and yet it’s crucial that his post-Katrina urgency about the city that he loves is still married to his mission of making music that, well, feels good— and what more fitting homage to the city’s past and present alike could there possibly be?
On its own, a song like that could seem frivolous; here, it sets the tone for an album that sizzles with Mardi Gras-ready craziness but masks grim concerns and serious sentiments under its feel-good surface. The second song, “Lissen at Our Prayer,” is a sort of religious melange that reflects both the city’s diversity and its spiritualism: Expressions from different faiths are invoked in a sort of universal prayer that has ecological salvation at its heart. Its timing with the BP spill in the Gulf is probably a coincidence, but it couldn’t be more perfectly timed. Dr. John really unloads in “Only in America,” a furious track that channels the political outrage that’s been inseparable from New Orleans ever since the Bush years, while “What’s wit Dat”– a tirade about healthy eating– nicely highlights both the socio-political anger and the underlying eccentricity of this music.
But make no mistake: Though it may have weighty concerns lurking inside it, Tribal is every bit a celebration– because really, a true-blooded New Orleans album can’t help but be a celebration. Sometimes its hometown adoration comes from looking outside– notice how the opening influences of Indian music in the title cut reflect the city’s varied cultural milieu– but it also comes from looking back. John wrote three songs with the late Bobby Charles– an undersung artist whose possession of the city’s musical spirit is unimpeachable– and, of course, there is an appearance here from Allen Toussaint– as a songwriter, not as a performer– who, ever since his jazzy, joyful The Bright Mississippi released, has been the city’s patron saint and its cultural ambassador. Toussaint actually performed on the Shorty and Galactic albums from this year– and his contributions to the city’s music are nodded to in new releases by Cyndi Lauper and Mavis Staples, as well– and here his “Big Gap” is done as late-night funk. Lyrically, it’s a sharp take on class division and economic inequality; musically, it’s just a party. It’s music that feels good, and it’s music that’s more than meets the eye– in other words, it’s a worthy stand-in for Tribal itself, its presence here underlying why John, too, is a New Orleans treasure, and why his music is still vital for all of us.
It arrives almost ten years after the fact, and its place of origin is not Nashville but New Orleans, yet even so: You might as well consider Preservation a sort of sequel to the seminal O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack– at least in spirit, if not in style. Like that album, this one gathers an impossibly wide and impressive array of contemporary musicians to interpret songs so integral to the musical roots of this country, they seem almost to transcend genre, and can only really be described as American music, plan and simple. Like that album, this one is a celebration of simplicity, of rugged faith and high hopes in the face of hard times– quintessential Americana themes. And like that album, this one is in service of a true American institution– the Coen Brothers in the case of the former, Preservation Hall in the case of the latter.
And actually, it’s the Hall that proves to be this record’s secret weapon, one that not even O Brother can lay claim to matching: For in that Hall– perhaps as storied and integral to American music history as any other building in the country– dwells the Preservation Jazz Band, arguably the medium’s most legendary and hardest-working band. The lineup of the band has, obviously, changed time and time again since its inception in the early 1960s, but the music they play hasn’t– and in fact, it seems to stretch out to well before the 60s, to a time when jazz was all about filling the dancehalls with high spirits and good humor. The music they play here is old-timey in the best sense of the term, unabashedly fun and swinging with cheerful energy.
It’s the band that anchors this record, and their playing is stellar across the board; but what about the special guests? They come from the worlds of indie rock, of country, and yes, of jazz, and every one of them turns in a stellar performance; indeed, part of the joy of this album is in hearing how naturally the featured guests work their way into the fabric of the Preservation band, locking into the spirit of the music without calling attention to themselves. That New Orleans favorites like Dr. John and Terrence Blanchard turn in fine performances is no big surprise, but what’s really delightful is hearing Andrew Bird swing like he did back in the days of Oh, The Grandeur!, or hearing Tom Waits turn in a deliriously fun scat performance that reveals just how much this music has influenced him. Picking further highlights is tough, but I love the Blind Boys of Alabama bringing a heavy dose of gospel to the proceedings, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James continuing his eclectic career trajectory with a dreamlike “Louisiana Fairytale,” youngster Paolo Nutini continuing his exploration of roots music in a seductively-crooned “Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea,” and Ani DiFranco giving what may be the most cheerful and warm vocal performance of her life in a wonderful reading of “Freight Train.”
And that’s the real key to what makes this such a delightful recording: It’s all about shaking off one’s cares and having a good time, with music that swings happily and offers nothing but cheerful simplicity. These are standard songs that most of us know by heart, but no matter: This album demonstrates why their appeal is so enduring, and how much they still have to speak to us today.