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 love everything about this. I love that Galactic– one of the best bands in New Orleans, and really one of the best bands in America– is flying their hometown colors higher than ever. I love that they’re once again making music that draws on the crossed paths of musical and cultural history, this time between the Big Easy and Brazil, and that they’ve once again made a record awash in history but rendered in gloriously modern, vibrant colors. And I love that their album-length celebration of the music of Carnivale and Mardis Gras is being released by the ANTI- label on– when else?– the day of Mardi Gras.
This is the first Galactic studio album since Ya Ka May, an album that fused the past and present of New Orleans music, brass bands and living legends like Allen Toussaint sitting in with bounce artists and “sissy” rappers. Carnivale is similarly inclusive. This is decades worth of musical legacy condensed into a modern package, and it crackles with the kind of energy that you just can’t avoid when you bring so much great music into such close quarters. Here, Brazilian music is huge– check “Voyage Ton Flag,” which refracts zydeco through the postmodern prism of hip-hop. So is parade music; one of the many entries on Galactic’s guest list is a New Orleans high school marching band. And yes, bounce and rap are also present in high doses, maybe more than ever before. “Hey Na Na” grafts battle raps and party-starting beats over metallic electric guitar, while “Move Fast” has charismatic (and very funny) MC-ing from Mystikal and Mannie Fresh over soulful organ and horns. (By the way, another thing I love about this album is how many of the guest artists I recognize simply by virtue of watching Treme.)
It adds up to an album that lives up to its name– this is, indeed, an electrifying carnival of an album, a parade of sounds and songs and celebration that never dips in energy or imagination, where the brassy on-the-corner funk of “Out on the Street (featuring a couple of Neville Brothers) fits seamlessly along the horns-ablaze, marching-band momentum of “Karate.” As with any Galactic album, it seems at first like it’s all about the energy– and this one bounces like nobody’s business– but this is something very different from a live concert experience.
Indeed, Galactic albums are as much about sound as performance. That’s what makes all of these wild sounds fit so seamlessly together; they’re all put through the same filter of Galactic’s thoroughly present-day sound, where the guitars are processed, the vocalists sound like they’re singing through bullhorns, and there’s never an absence of crisp, jangling percussion. It’s a feast and a celebration for the ears– dancing music that’s sonically rich and layered and full of bright, intoxicating colors.
I suspect that it’s Galactic’s most ambitious record yet, and, song for song, it stacks up nicely against Ya Ka May. I love their music, more than anything, for how it captures the strut and swagger of New Orleans’ entire history without sounding like it belongs to any era but the present, and Carnivale Electricos is the most brilliantly-staged expression of that ethos yet. (Plus, immediately the go-to soundtrack for every party I will host from now on, Mardis Gras or otherwise.)
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.
And then, seemingly out of the blue, Troy Andrews was everywhere. In 2010 alone, the 24-year-old horn master from the Big Easy, who performs with his Orleans Avenue band as Trombone Shorty, won a recurring role on HBO’s Nawlins-set series Treme, even as he continued to pop up in supporting slots for fellow Crescent City acts like Galactic and released his own national debut as a bandleader, the tremendously soulful and energetic Backatown. That would surely qualify as a busy year for anybody– and it’s not even halfway over!– but to say that Shorty’s stock is abruptly on the rise would be to miss the larger picture. Really, Andrews has been a prolific musician literally since he was a kid– he became a bandleader at age six– and he’s been a New Orleans stalwart for years now. Meanwhile, the profile of the city itself– and, crucially, its music– really has been on the rise; if Treme is all about a city struggling to its feet in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the recent musical outpourings from New Orelans have been more about a spirit of resolve, endurance, and celebration– a spirit that runs through recent, high-watermark albums like Allen Toussaint’s historically-minded The Bright Mississippi and Galactic’s futuristic Ya-Ka-May, to say nothing of Andrews’ new record.
By the way: Toussaint appears on one cut from Backatown, just as he did on Ya-Ka-May, and while he doesn’t lend vocal support here like he did on that album, he does get credit as songwriter and pianist; the track in question is a cover of his classic “On Your Way Down,” a tune that was most famously performed by Little Feat but has also been recorded by Toussaint himself and, in 2006, by Toussaint and Elvis Costello. Andrews’ version dances circles around all the others; it’s a loose, funky groove, Toussaint’s piano lines and what sounds like a flute flirting with a dynamite, in-the-pocket rhythm that makes past incarnations of the song sound leaden by comparison. It’s a fairly radical reinvention of a beloved tune, but Toussaint’s presence here seems to signify his approval.
It’s also the perfect entry point for an album that swings, struts, swaggers, and never once strays from its irresistible groove. The other songs are all Andrews originals, but they’re likely to be standards some day. Some are vocal performances, many are instrumentals, and all are rather unclassifiable fusions of funk, soul, R&B, rock, and yes, some jazz– though calling this a New Orleans jazz album would be a bit of a misnomer. Really, it’s tough, streetwise pop music in the best sense of the term– the music of the corner, vibrant and alive, owing less to traditional notions of jazz than to New Orleans line music, the kind of thing you’d hear coming down the way from a Mardi Gras parade or from an impromptu jam session on the streets.
Which is to say, of course, that the music has its roots in tradition, but not the tradition of history books– a tradition that’s still evolving, still alive and in the moment, which Backatown certainly is. The album is named after a neighborhood in the Treme area, the oldest black community in the nation, which shows that Andrews is mindful of his roots, but if he’s respectful of where this music comes from, he’s not beholden to it, sounding much more interested in where it’s going. The set was produced by Ben Ellison of Galactic, and while it’s got some of the trappings of a music hall, the attitude seems to come more from hip-hop, and the sound that results is endlessly groovy and crackling with vitality and urgency.
Highlights? Just pick one. The songs with big-name guest performers are likely to get the most attention, not just the Toussaint cover but also the appearance of Lenny Kravitz’ guitar work on “Something Beautiful,” a sort of neo-soul number by way of rock balladry, as well as a duet between Andrews and Marc Broussard on the rock-oriented “Right to Complain.” But the instrumental numbers provide the album’s real meat– whether it’s the monstrous funk opener “Hurricane Season,” a sort of New Orleans march for the P-Funk set, or the metallic rock of “Suburbia.” These are deft works of celebratory, forward-thinking fusion, the music of the corner meeting the music of the hall, popular music made by a guy whose definition of the term is big enough to incorporate hip-hop and funk and jazz as mere matters of inflection, not separate entities that belong on separate streets. Backatown is profound musical integration, an inclusive and exciting set from a bandleader who, at 24, can already be called visionary.
The last several years have seen a resurgence of music made in and about the city of New Orleans—a testament to just how deep within the city’s marrow music really is, and to the town’s own resilience—but my two favorite records both come with Allen Toussaint’s name emblazoned on the cover. And isn’t it fitting? Not only is Toussaint one of the Crescent City’s brightest musical treasures (and seemingly one of its best-kept secrets), but his two albums show just how deep and wide these post-Katrina feelings run. The first, The River in Reverse, was a collaboration with Elvis Costello and producer Joe Henry, and it was a celebration of the city’s legacy, tempered by political outrage and deep sadness. Then, he ditched Costello but kept Henry for the jazz outing The Bright Mississippi, which was and is a flat-out joy.
Toussaint appears on a single track on Ya-Ka-May, a record named for a New Orleans delicacy and spearheaded by a New Orleans funk outfit called Galactic, and—perhaps unsurprisingly at this point—this one’s still another new stripe of New Orleans record. There’s no politics here, no sadness, and though there are some iconic musicians present here, no nostalgic looks to the city’s past. This is music for the here and now; it’s a parade of bright and dizzying colors, a party album where the funk doesn’t ever let up, and it’s as boisterous and bawdy as anything coming down Bourbon Street.
But back to Toussaint: I mention him because his contribution, “Bacchus,” strikes at the heart of what this album’s really about; the song is a clever and (naturally) soulful ode to inspiration, improvisation, and intuition—a celebration of all the right kinds of in-the-moment decadence. And so is the record itself: Splitting the difference between simple elegance and randy nonsense, Ya-Ka-May is all about the virtues of simply enjoying oneself.
The Galactic crew makes sure we don’t overthink it: The album literally never stops moving. The closest thing to a ballad or a torch song here is a spirited, clap-along anthem by Irma Thomas called “Heart of Steel,” a survivor’s tale that rings true of the city that inspired this music. But most of this music simply revels in the sensual energy of where the city is now, at least musically: the Rebirth Brass Band brings some New Orleans swing but Galactic anchors it to the present-day with dirty hip-hop beats, while an array of impressive New Orleans MCs—you’ve probably never heard of them before—show off a local style called “bounce,” basically an aggressively funky, good-times brand of rap.
It might sound odd on paper, the thought of songs like these brushing up against numbers by Toussaint and Thomas, or by John Boutte’s slightly moodier, cello-accented “Dark Water,” but that’s the record’s appeal: It’s a bright and shimmering collage of sounds and songs, perspectives old and new but always seeming fresh, that are quite literally on parade. It’s not an homage to New Orleans any more than it’s a monument to the endless joys of communal music-making, which, in its own way, makes this a relentlessly fun tribute to a city where the music never dies.