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I always end up with mixed feelings about projects like this. Are people going to only buy it because of Auerbach, not knowing the good Doctor? Is the Night Tripper going to be lost behind the black fuzz of Auerbach, despite playing his very own keys? Does any of that matter at all?
I don’t have an answer to any of those, especially the last question. I, myself, bought the album because of both of them. I’ve been into the works of Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack for years now–somewhere around college I piled him in with Leon Russell and Todd Rundgren–the solo artists from (approximately) the 70s who had hits, but ended up enjoying more “visibility” (audibility and not visibility, I should say…) in the works of others–Rundgren as a producer, Russell as songwriter and session man, and Dr. John as a muppet¹. More to the point, their sounds were unusual–but not so unusual as to be in the range of post-punk’s occasional peculiarities or any similarly “extreme” experimentation. Nice home-brews of sound, reflecting personal musical pasts, cultural and regional ones, or some mix of both.
The album’s a throwback at the first glance–the cover looks like it could be from some time four decades ago, but without the slight unease of a pastiche, earnest homage, or similar “tell” that many such covers often bear. It easily slides itself into a space of both modern and aged, the right way to do such things and maintain comfort in image. The inner lyric sheet even has liner notes written by a writer, that suggest the album is a marriage of the “gris-gris” sound of Dr. John as “Dr. John” on albums like the aptly named Gris-Gris (more of a cult hit) and of him as “Mac Rebennack” (his real name) on more familiar and accessible albums like Dr. John’s Gumbo and hits like “Right Place, Wrong Time”. As a fan of both, the idea appealed to me–and I’ve grown to love the Black Keys in recent years, so Auerbach’s presence was similarly welcome.
I was finally pushed into the purchase–made on Record Store Day two years back, while catching The Two Dollar Pistols at an in-store show–because it included a CD copy of the album–which I still like to have. The best kind, too–it’s just a cardstock sleeve, sure, but it actually has printed art, like a little record in the record sleeve. All three of the above artists are still recording today though, and would do throwback cover art as a point in the continued line of their work, not as some indicator of resumption of career after extended hiatus. However, despite their being my litmus test for record stores for some years (CD Alley in Chapel Hill, NC passed with flying colours when I first moved out there, though they had minimal Russell). It said to me, “Record store that knows their stuff, and isn’t trying to prove something.” The fact of their major hits (“Tightrope”, “Such a Night”, etc) meant they didn’t quite have the ultra-hip factor for modern stores, so it meant interesting depth alongside those expected items–and that they’d have the expected items, not be trying to prove something with an absence of Zeppelin, or what have you.
My Dr. John collection is probably the weakest of the three, covering no classic albums on vinyl (where the other two cover whole timeframes), and stopping on CD at 1973, barring two compilations I ended up with. It’s a bit strange, considering I group him so readily with especially Russell, whose work I’ve devoured to absurd extents, as much as I generally do anymore.
So it seemed, all-in-all, like a logical addition to my stacks of records.
The title track sets the mood pretty clearly: we’ve got strange, swampy sorts of sound effects that call to mind the stranger and more experimental (Gris-Gris again) elements of his career, before Nick Movshon’s bass lays down a fat groove alongside the rolling lollop of Max Weissenfeldt’s snare-heavy drumbeat. Thick with the swampy sound Dr. John brings from New Orleans, the crowds of backing vocals (defined largely by the voices of the McCrary Sisters, but including basically everyone else, too) and the thunderous groove of the rhythm section underpin a still finely-formed voice in our hero, whose smoky, soulful, voice continues to carry inflections that sing out his Louisiana origins. Auerbach’s guitar is heroic and upfront but entirely appropriate–as with another project he was involved as a “backing” player, he seems to recognize his place in the record as certainly producer and guitarist, but producer and guitarist for a singer and keyboardist. It’s a scorcher of an opener–not necessarily because it burns, but because it makes it clear immediately that this is a Dr. John record, not a flimsy graft of his voice onto someone else’s.
“Revolution” has an actual video (similarly authentic in its anachronistic style²), and it’s a deep brass/woodwind-based track, playing on the exchange of baritone saxes and Auerbach’s sharpened ghost of a guitar lick. It’s a showcase for Dr. John’s unique vocal stylings though–“Such a Night” is unmistakably his voice, and the ragged rhythm of it is his own, but as a song, it could be reasonably sung by others. “Revolution” bows before his style of singing, half-spoken, lyrical and musical but constrained and dry with smoke. That sax sound is fantastic, and it really drives the song, giving it a thick bottom end, which highlights the pause for Mac to whisper with a hint of threat or irony, “Let’s all just pray on it right now,” a call that receives Auerbach’s lick as response, which is really just an introduction for the magnificently thin, clear, organic keyboard solo from Rebennack that just wiggles itself right into the right place as his music does: warm and dirty.
An amusing (my dad chuckled a bit when I played this album for him) sample opens “Big Shot” (neither Billy Joel’s nor Robert Palmer’s–I’m sure you suspected the latter, and indeed knew it existed!)–in a weird way, it reminds me of Leon Russell’s “I Put a Spell on You”. I remember reading a review that called that track ballsy, for daring to name itself indiscernibly from the classic Screamin’ Jay Hawkins track (of the same name, if you didn’t catch that!). No, Billy Joel’s song is not thought of in the same light generally, nor even by me specifically, but the title sure felt like it was already covered, if not by him then somewhere. Yet there it is, and it’s couched lyrically in a too-cool chorus: “Ain’t never was, never gonna be, another big shot like me. I’m the big shot, layin’ in the cut for you to see.” If the video for “Revolution” showed how much raw cool Dr. John just exudes in presence, “Big Shot” puts it into song form. It’s lazy and swinging, but you never doubt his control of it, all the way up until it goes out the way it came in: that fun little sample.
If ever Auerbach takes his presence up a notch, it’s on “Ice Age”. The hypnotic curl of his riff for the song is attractive beyond reason, joined as it is with the companionship of Brian Olive’s guitar at a beautifully matched kind of harmony–but he lets it all go for the chorus, where Weissenfeldt’s Meters-like drumming³ takes instrumental precedent. I guess no one can groove like a New Orleans drummer–the casual, natural bounces between snare, rim, kick, like a laidback samba–it is just wonderful to hear. Dr. John’s voice commands as if from one of his more elaborate, feathery costumes (see that cover!), the slightly weird, seemingly crazy, but truly wise seer passing out his opinions and thoughts, cool as a cucumber. His voice slithers and slides, gnarled at its lower end with just a few more tricklings of that smoky burn that gives his voice its clearest character.
Oh, some know what a sucker I am for great keyboard riffs–they don’t have to be fancy or complicated, they just have to hit a sweet spot. And “Getaway” does it–a very short, sharp, staccato riff that comes out with still-rounded edges when played through electronic keys like that–Movshon’s bass coiled tight around itself, and Weissenfeldt’s drumming continuing that tasty feel of what ought to be (if it isn’t) the most famous rhythm section out of New Orleans (yeah, the Meters again). Dr. John slips over the top of a rhythm section knotted and tight to match his rapidly tapped keyboard riff. Auerbach takes off on another solo, and keeps it soulful like his best known stuff, but more knowingly sloppy and naturalistic, improvisationally wild.
“Kingdom of Izzness” is keyboard bouncing sharply off funky drumming, the track lurching back and forth with a purpose, a vehicle that seems ramshackle but deceptively efficacious. The McCrary Sisters get some of their most front-faced vocals, “Oooh”ing behind Dr. John, whose voice seems to be designed to climb up the music as a ladder, pausing periodically to survey surroundings and affirm the stability of that ladder.
Auerbach’s guitar makes it sound like “You Lie” might be his track, but after it establishes itself into a consistent pattern, Weissenfeldt and those saxes of Brian Olive and Leon Michels fatten it up, and the blues-y feel that betrays Auerbach’s leanings is lost to the funk of New Orleans. They actually reclaim the tonal progression of that guitar riff and, without actually re-building it, reshape it into something that they define so completely, the guitar is lost to them. It’s another track just dripping with cool, the saxes almost defiant in the way they embrace this–as that instrument has suffered mightily in public eyes after its usage in some contexts.
Weissenfelt almost goes Funkadelic for “Eleggua”, which sounds like it could’ve been one of the companion tracks on Maggot Brain (the ones beside the title track, I mean). It’s dirty and funky, the organ-style keys calling to mind the heavier elements of that Funkadelic sound, but giving way to a kind of spreading warmth when they hold a high note, like a sudden breeze lifts us from the gutter up to float above the clouds for just a moment, Dr. John’s voice beautifully enunciating “Tricknology…” with that same friendly ease. Truly a treasure on this record the way it shifts like that.
“My Children, My Angels” is all keys at first, cool and low like they came from a recording fifty years ago instead, but inflating to a spacious chorus that seems to bloom and flow like a deep blue billowing cloud, hinting not at fire or other threat, but just a large drop of ink pushed up through previously clear water. That chorus is pure groove in the most relaxing of senses. Truly, I stopped typing to just feel it again, the way he rises up to the top of “Tell me ’bout your desires right now” and then turns just a bit darker, more sad than threatening, for him to rumble, “Don’t trip on loose wires, I’ll show you how”. If it didn’t just sound inherently ridiculous as an adjective, I think “transcendant” might apply for that moment.
Like a joyous gospel song (appropriately, I suppose!) “God’s Sure Good” is all sustained organ-style keys and hammered out keyboard answers to a questioning guitar lick–and man, is it good. Auerbach’s guitar is the call out for an Amen, the McCrary Sisters are the choir, and Dr. John is our lyrical, musical preacher. You can almost see him reciting his reasons for thankfulness in that half-spoken way, surrounded by everyone else–not there as musician, but as humble and gracious man appreciating the survival of a lot of personal troubles. It’s a burst of joy and a great ending for the album in that respect–ending on a whisper and a fade.
The great thing about the funk-jazz-swamp amalgam of Dr. John’s music has always been the palpable feel of it, the ease with which it insinuates its way into your ears and is simultaneously weird and exotic, comfortable and familiar, and dance-inducingly catchy and groovy. This is definitely the kind of album that is reasonably called “return to form” both now (I’m going to violate my usual policy and not research that–but I can’t believe someone hasn’t said it) and in the future–or at least it ought to be. It’s that merger of established style and lineage with fresh and new sounds and feelings that keeps it from feeling like it’s nothing but a reheating of ideas from forty years ago. Much like that cover, it feels like an artifact, but a lost gem, not just a lost album. And yet, it also feels new and modern, despite the fact that we have two musicians steeped in tradition fronting the affair, one of whom is himself a legend.
If you’ve any love for the deceptively tight swing of New Orleans funk, Dr. John’s past work, solid grooving, or semi-anachronistic musical choices, check the album out–it’s a nice, trim set of songs, devoid of fat, meandering or mis-steps.
¹This isn’t actually true. Dr. Teeth is known to be based on Dr. John, but the general lack of familiarity with Dr. John most people seem to have means that whatever visibility that could have given him trickled away. At least, any time I tell people that fact, they stare at me blanky, with a look of “Who?”
²The setup is actually similar to Robert Palmer’s for his cover of the Gap Band’s “Early in the Morning”, a statement that will mystify and doubtless anger at least a few people in the world, if they ever read it. But it’s true–time-flipping meld of sound-check and actual show. Doubtless not unique, but familiar to me from that instance.
³Even the New Orleans connection aside, a sound very at home with Dr. John’s own–the Meters themselves backed him on In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo in the mid 70s.