Tag Archives: New Orleans

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.

Never Any Clapton, Part 3 – Proud Mary by Creedence Clearwater Revival

“It’s the economy, stupid”

That’s what political strategist and Bill Clinton campaign manager James Carville said when asked what made John Fogerty a great guitar player.*

Economy – that is to say, careful use of resources – is pretty much the defining characteristic of Fogerty’s Creedence-era music. In this, the band was utterly unlike its peers from across the bay (the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and so on), who lived to draw things out on stage, to explore their material from every angle over 10, 15, 20 minutes. Creedence on the whole got in and got out again quickly, and Fogerty was disinclined to include anything in a song that didn’t have to be there. OK, the band had their extended moments (most famously the 11-minute recording of I Heard it Through the Grapevine, but  I think the 4-minute edit with only one solo is self-evidently superior), but Fogerty’s songs are largely pared down to the bone: 2- and 3-minute affairs with two verses and three choruses, usually without a middle eight, and an arrangement based on little more than two guitars, bass and drums.

Guitar solos, too, are rarer than you’d think in Creedence’s music, and often they’re just a few bars long. A couple of bars of through-composed melody (semi-chordal or  pentatonic) to provide a change of feel or texture prior to the final verse or chorus.

A key solo in the Fogerty canon, partly because it was from a relatively early single and partly because it’s so illustrative of his style on so many CCR songs, is the solo from Proud Mary.

There’s a little lick that guitarists love. With your index finger, you play a triad on the same fret across the D, G and B strings (that is, the way you play an A chord), then add your middle finger on the one fret up on the B and your ring finger two frets up on the D. This gives you a triad a fourth above your base chord. You can use hammer-ons and pull-offs to give you all kinds of melodies – single note, double stop or triad- based. You can play this lick starting on any fret, so it works in any key. It’s in innumerable Keith Richards riffs. It’s the beginning of Robbie Robertson’s intro to The Weight. It’s the Rebel Rebel riff, the Block Buster riff. It’s everywhere.

Two thirds of the Proud Mary solo is just playing around with these ideas. The key isn’t the notes Fogerty plays, it’s the rhythm of them, especially when he plays melodic ornamentations like that sliding double stop and that delightful little hoppedy-skippedy tune that comprises the second half of the solo. He’s not just playing straight sixteenth notes or eighth notes with no swing or syncopation; Fogerty absorbed too much from Chuck Berry and Little Richard for that. With him, rhythm is always key, whether he’s soloing or not.

CCR

*I jest, of course. I’ve no idea what kind of music Carville is into. But he lives in New Orleans, so maybe he does like a bit of Creedence. After all, no band from California ever sounded more authentically Lousianian than CCR.

 

Love Has No Pride – Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt’s 1972 album Give it Up is the sort of front-to-back solid record that sounds better listened to in toto than it does when you pick out individual songs. The trick is how the songs draw strength from those that precede and follow them, right from the start of the record: Nothing Seems to Matter (featuring none other than Dave Holland on double bass, two years on from Bitches Brew – worlds colliding indeed) wouldn’t be so affecting if it didn’t follow the rollicking, New Orleansy Give it Up or Let Me Go. All the elements that are thrown into the mix – R&B, soul, blues, folk, country – sound thoroughly natural sitting side by side with each other, and they add up to a record that sounds substantially earthier than just about anything else being made in California at the time. Certainly anything being made in Laurel Canyon. It’s worth noting too that Raitt, more famed as a guitarist (BB King’s favourite slide guitarist, no less) and singer than writer, was solely responsible for the two above-mentioned songs, which are among Give it Up‘s best cuts.

The last of the record’s ten songs is Love Has No Pride, by Eric Kaz and Libby Titus*, the most LA-sounding cut, but also one of the most moving. In fact, the track succeeds almost in spite of itself. Its opening lyrics are a syntactic muddle so grievous that I promptly switched it off the first time I heard it. Surely no song that started “I’ve had bad dreams too many times/To think that they don’t mean much anymore” could ever be any good? Its middle section is a lopsided 20 bars long and feels like it should finish four bars earlier.

Yet Raitt makes everything out of this song that’s there to be made and turns it into something really special. Her vocal, unaffected as always, is devastating, and her arrangement choices are exemplary: she resists the temptation to pump the song up and make it big with the addition of drums or extraneous instrumentation, instead keeping it simple and intimate. Compare Linda Ronstadt’s much showier version from a year later, which adds strings, gospel backing vocals, and half a dozen instruments. No prizes for guessing which one has more emotional heft.

Raitt’s been doing this time and again over her career. By the standards of their era and locale, even her Don Was/Ed Cherney albums (overexposed and overgarlanded at the time, but so darn likeable it’s hard to begrudge her – they’ll never be a time when I’m not happy to hear Something to Talk About come on the radio, which is just as well) from the late eighties and early nineties sound warm, organic and earthy. If you want to hear what makes her so good, though, skip Nick of Time and Luck of the Draw and go back to 1972’s Give it Up.

Check out this version, too, with Raitt guesting at a CSN show, and David Crosby on Graham Nash singing backing vocals. The old-timers proceed to show the youngsters how it’s done:

Bonnie
Bonnie, with Strat and slide

Southern nights – Glen Campbell

I have appreciated so many genres of music coming up, so I’m not too far away from what comes at me later on

Allen Toussaint

One of those genres apparently was the smashed and blissful psychedelia of records by the Beach Boys and the Beatles, to judge from Toussaint’s own recording of Southern Nights from 1975.

Allen Toussaint is a towering figure in popular music. Working in a Coal Mine, Mother-in-Law, Lady Marmalade and Southern Nights are all his. He produced Ernie K-Doe, Lee Dorsey, the Nevilles and Irma Thomas. He arranged horns for the Band. His songs have been covered or sampled by scores of artists.

Given that it became a signature song of sorts and given that Toussaint will forever be associated with the second-line sound of New Orleans R&B, Southern Nights was a very strange record indeed, and not one you’d necessarily think would catch on. Its beat is kept only by a hi-hat. Toussaint’s voice is sent through a Leslie cabinet. The arrangement is dominated by an overlapping tapestry of pianos: an untuned upright, a couple of electrics and a big old grand. The familiar riff that would power the Glen Campbell version is underplayed to the point where you could miss it entirely. This was a very personal dreamlike sound, not a production looking to be a hit record.

Glen Campbell had felt those Southern Nights, too, and Toussaint’s idiosyncratic and personal record touched him. His own recording of the song, though, went a very different way. 1976, when Campbell began work on what would become the album Southern Nights, was just about the peak of the disco era and the records being made in New York, with their huge low end and hissing hi-hats, were making country music sound very white, very small and not very swinging. Campbell’s Southern Nights, then, was one of those country records that attempted to come to a sort of rhythmic accommodation with disco. While some attempts to do this (Dr Hook’s When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman, say) came off cynical, or even desperate, the success of Southern Nights is that it sounds genuinely overjoyed, while retaining just a little of the wistfulness of Toussaint’s original. In fact, with its horns, soulful backing vocals, offbeat guitar and playful swing, it sounds much more like a Toussaint record than Toussaint’s own recording did. It’s a fitting tribute from one master to another.

Glen Campbell
Glen Campbell

Allen_Toussaint
Allen Toussaint

R.E.M.’s Monster at 20, part 2

Previously — our author hears What’s the Frequency Kenneth by R.E.M., wonders what the hell it all means

R.E.M., it’s safe to say, had not gone collectively mad. Several things had happened since Automatic for the People. The band had decided that, if they were going to tour, it might be good to have some bigger, louder, more arena-ready material to take with them. Bill Berry in particular had been keen to make a louder record after Out of Time, but all their strongest material was acoustic, so they recorded that instead and didn’t tour behind the album. This time round, though, he was insisting the band plug back in and turn it up. Finally, and here we’re into the realms of speculation, the emergence of Nirvana et al. over 1991 and 1992 had created a very different environment to the one in which R.E.M. had last been a working ‘rock’ band; this one was more sympathetic to them, indeed looked to them as inspiration, and they likely felt eager to align themselves with it. That Cobain died in the middle of the Monster sessions doubtless put a crimp on this, but it seems reasonable to guess it was part of their thinking when they began.

Monster‘s basic tracks were cut by Scott Litt and David Colvin on a soundstage in Atlanta, with overdubs added at Criteria in Florida, Ocean Way in LA, and Kingsway in New Orleans. This was a big-budget, protracted process, and the finished album suggests a degree of overthinking. A natural response to the idea of a making a road-ready rock album would have been to cut the album essentially live, add just the minimum of overdubs, and mix it so that the vocals were perhaps a touch sunken in, with the bass and drums forward and the guitars (maybe one each side to reflect the fact that the band would tour with a second guitarist) left to glue everything together.

That’s not quite what Monster is. The guitars, on the louder tracks, are thrust to the very front of the mix, making the rhythm section sound tiny in comparison, and leaving Stipe near inaudible. The latter is not a big deal; R.E.M. had made a lot of records at the start of their career where Stipe’s vocal was low in the mix and there’s plenty of precedent for low-mixed vocals in rock, from prime-era Stones onwards. But a rock album where the bass and drums aren’t providing the tracks’ energy and ‘push’ is not likely to be wholly satisfying. Now, whether Litt and the band decided to spotlight Buck rather than Berry because the latter’s drum tracks didn’t quite come up to snuff or (more likely) because they ‘big guitars’ was the fashionable thing to do, who can say. Litt, in any case, is not a producer noted for his work with heavy bands. But it’s noticeable how much more depth and power the drums have at the start of I Don’t Sleep, I Dream (track 4) than they do on the previous three songs, simply because they’re not competing with a big wall o’Buck.

So the sound of Monster isn’t that of a straightforward rock album. But neither are the songs straightforward rock songs, in either form or content. Many critics of R.E.M. have noted that their songs often lacked really strong choruses, a strange quality given that this band was once arguably the biggest in the world. This observation is overstated on the whole, and it misses the point that R.E.M. songs work by the accretion of one small hook after another, rather than by having one big killer chorus (although they’ve done that too on occasion). But Monster does have a few songs that seem to deflate a bit they get to the chorus; Star 69 and Bang and Blame are the biggest offenders, the latter really suffering because of how promising the verse is.

That’s not true of all of its tracks, though. If Monster is, Kenneth apart, better in its softer moments (I Don’t Sleep, I Dream; Strange Currencies; and Tongue, a falsetto soul ballad that succeeds in spite of the fact that Stipe is not Al Green), its last third is its strongest. I Took Your Name, with Stipe’s arch Iggy Pop-as-corporate-drone vocal, takes the sawing tremolo guitar from Crush With Eyeliner but puts it to more intriguing use, without Thurston Moore stunt casting; Let Me In – the band’s Kurt Cobain tribute – has a beautiful, incandescent distorted guitar sound and Stipe’s most plaintive and emotionally direct vocal on the record; Circus Envy thins out the guitars and lets Bill Berry push the song on, which challenge he responds to; and album closer, You, combines a thumping floor-tom rhythm with a throbbing D-minor guitar drone and an eastern-tinged riff, finishing the album on an ominous, ambiguous note.

Monster functions as a conceptual unity, too, with song after song about the nature and fluidity of identity and sexuality, Stipe’s lyrics often seeming to run counter to the music, so that one seems to be a commentary on the other. It’s worth bearing in mind the difficulty of the task Stipe was faced with in writing lyrics for a rock album after two widely praised but often sombre and meditative records. The band may have been able to take a cue here and there from their contemporaries, but Stipe couldn’t have borrowed another writer’s idiom (whether that writer had been Eddie Vedder, Thurston Moore, Cobain, Jerry Cantrell, or anyone) without it being utterly crass and inappropriate. He had to define his own themes and style for this record, and he more or less completely succeeded. That was no small achievement.

Yet Monster will forever be known as the record that second-hand shops won’t touch; the record that 4 million people bought and 4 million people sold back. It wasn’t the triumph that Automatic was, and it’s not as various as New Adventures in Hi-Fi (on which, as a bonus, the band does sound more like a band), but it deserves a way better rep than it currently has. There probably won’t be too many ‘Monster at 20′ retrospectives this year, but if there are, let’s hope they give an undervalued and brave record a fair shake.

Image

This is a picture of Michael Stipe and Cher – does there have to be a reason?