Tag Archives: marimba

Mama Roux – Dr John

Dr John’s latter-day reputation as an avuncular ivory-tinkling presence on the margins of pop culture, liable to pop up on TV every so often to sing a good-humoured rendition of Iko-Iko, before disappearing back to Louisiana to play ragtime piano in a bar, is at serious odds with his early music.

Dr John was born Malcolm John Rebennack in, of course, New Orleans in 1941. He was a promising guitar player, beginning to make his way in the local music industry, until an accident with a gun (he was trying to disarm someone holding up his friend and the gun went off) left him with a damaged ring finger on his fretting hand. Unable to regain the feeling and movement needed to play guitar as he had previously, he switched to piano, and developed a style indebted to Professor Longhair.

During a couple of years of session playing in LA, he cooked up an idea. What could you do by mixing up jazz and R&B and rock with voodoo mythology and a theatrical, Screaming Jay Hawkins-style stage show? He decided, after pondering a while, that you could do quite a lot, and his old friend Harold Battiste (who was an oboe player and arranger for Phil Spector) agreed.

Rebennack wanted another friend, Robbie Barron, to assume the Dr John persona, but Barron’s manager convinced him it would be a bad career move. So Rebennack, clad in a headdress that would never go over these days, took on the role of Dr John himself. His creation, Dr John Creaux, was a sort of witch doctor/voodoo priest, presiding over a band made up of LA session pros, some of whom were fellow NOLA transplants.

Gris Gris, Dr John’s debut album, was recorded at Gold Star in Los Angeles, where Spector and the Beach Boys did much of their work, but it could scarcely be further away in sound or mood from sunny LA pop. With its sound world of mandolin, bass clarinet, multitudinous percussion instruments, snaky bass grooves and sparing use of keyboards and electric guitars, the songs on Gris Gris sound like the accompaniment to a sinister ritual taking place deep in the Bayou Sauvage. Backing singers chant incantations and Rebennack slips in and out of English and Cajun French, as he wheedles you into trying his potions and gris gris, warning you all the time not to cross him. Three of the album’s seven tracks are eerie quasi-instrumentals with vocal chants.

Mama Roux is one of the album’s two relatively traditional songs – the tracks with the most connection to what Rebennack has done since his fifth album, Dr John’s Gumbo, remade his image and sound and cast him as a more cuddly, good-time kind of figure (I’d love it if he’d gone back to his voodoo-doctor roots when asked to provide the theme to the TV show Blossom, but alas no). The rhythm track isn’t straight two-and-four stuff on a drum kit (like the other songs on the record, it puts equal weight on shakers, congas, timbales, talking drums and other assorted percussion), and the ridiculously deep bass comes from organ pedals rather than a bass guitar, but it’s essentially an R&B tune at heart. If you like the weird edge it has, check out the whole album. It’s one of a kind.

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Clap Hands – Tom Waits

Tom Waits was an early signing to David Geffen’s first label, Asylum, but they didn’t quite know what to do with him. For his debut album, Closing Time, they paired him with producer Jerry Yester, a former member of the Modern Folk Quartet and the Lovin’ Spoonful. Yester, it’s said, emphasised the folk and country elements of his music at the expense of the jazz (he has been accused of doing the same thing to Tim Buckley, with the story being that Buckley made Happy Sad the record it is over Yester’s objections). Closing Time was, then, a pretty pallid singer-songwriter record of the sort that were ten a penny in the early seventies, only a couple of songs – notably Grapefruit Moon – standing out as a cut above.

Waits’s second album The Heart of Saturday Night, recorded and produced by jazz veteran Bones Howe, was the breakthrough, the first recognisable Tom Waits album – the late-night feel, the beatnik persona, the double bass and muted trumpet, the beat poetry, and – crucially – the sly sense of humour all in place. A very strong album that still provides material for modern jazz singers (that said, I don’t need to hear another version of the title track, thanks very much), Saturday Night remains highly rated but was arguably eclipsed by Small Change, his fourth album from two years later.

His voice now more gravelly than ever (Louis Armstrong with laryngitis), Waits recorded the whole album live to 2-track tape, no overdubs – the old-fashioned way. Waits’s whole mission, it seemed, was to be in a 1940s movie, a small-time loser who coulda been a contender, complete with hat, trenchcoat, battered suit and bottle of whiskey. The problem was that although it marked him out from his Canyon Cowboy contemporaries, even in 1976 that persona was more than a little clichéd. Certainly it was leading him into a creative cul-de-sac. He lived the part so completely that he was dangerously close to coming apart: drinking too much, sleeping too little and constantly finding himself in places he shouldn’t have been with people it would have been wiser to avoid.

His songs seemed to know more about the dangers of alcoholism than he did, and it wasn’t until a year or so after he wrote Bad Liver and a Broken Heart and The Piano Has Been Drinking that he got himself clean and sober. At that point he started to move away from the extremes of that beatnik persona, spending a few years in an artistic holding pattern before re-emerging in a New York on a new label and with a new character – the disconcerting carny complete with junkyard orchestra – and eventually his second great masterwork, Rain Dogs.

Yes, Rain Dogs. Swordfishtrombones may have been his first album in his new style, but Rain Dogs is the better one, taking all the ideas suggested by Swordfish and developing them, taking them to the obvious conclusion. Swordfish tracks including Underground, Shore Leave and the title song make it clear that a suffering marimba is going to be a key part of Waits’s new sound world, but it’s Clap Hands from Rain Dogs that’s Waits’s marimba masterwork.

The arrangement is a simple one: Waits on acoustic guitar, Marc Ribot on electric lead, Tony Garnier on double bass and Michael Blair, Stephen Hodges and Bobby Previte on marimbas and various drums and percussion. Percussion instruments both found and exotic were the crucial instruments in Waits’s world in the 1980s, and few instruments are given traditional r contemporary treatments (the overtly 1980s-sounding electric guitars on Downtown Train come are shocking in their conventionality in the context of Rain Dogs – much as I like the song, I’m not sure it belongs on the album).

Lyrically, too, Clap Hands employs a simple trick. It takes the chanted nursery-rhyme vocal rhythm (and some of the lines verbatim) of The Clapping Song and refracts them through Waits’s surrealist sensibility, always resolving on the song’s title:

Sane, sane, they’re all insane
The fireman’s blind, the conductor’s lame
A Cincinnati jacket and a sad luck dame
Hanging out the window with a bottle full of rain
Clap hands, clap hands

Shine, shine a Roosevelt dime
All the way to Baltimore and runnin’ out of time
Salvation Army seemed to wind up in the hole
They all went to heaven in a little row boat
Clap hands, clap hands

If you find yourself one day in a waking nightmare world where nothing makes sense and see some children out on the street corner skipping rope, Clap Hands is the song they’ll be singing. It’s a crucial text in Tom Waits’s post-1970s work. If you respond to this – if you like the percussion, the skronky guitars and the black humour – Waits will likely be a big deal for you.

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