Hard Times is Bonerama’s first studio recording after three live albums, and moving the band to the studio poses a number of challenges beyond maintaining the groove and vibe that comes with performing live. In concert, Bonerama’s as loud and physical as many guitar-based rock bands, partially because of similarities between the range of the trombone and the electric guitar, and because Bonerama plays loud. At Jazz Fest, the band’s music frequently bleeds over to adjoining stages, particularly when it’s windy. How do you capture something that intense in the studio?
To their credit, they don’t try. Instead, the five-song EP is an introduction of the things Bonerama does—a Mark Mullins song, a Craig Klein song, a funky instrumental, and two covers. One represents the sort of thing they’re known for—”When the Levee Breaks”—and one’s a broadening of their repertoire— Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light.” They only roll out their piledriver weight for the Led Zep cover; otherwise, they’re content to be a solid funk band and are exactly that. Mullins’ title cut is a bit poppier, Klein’s “Lost My House” has a bit of a Neville groove, but those tracks move more nimbly than you’d expect after one of their classic rock covers.
Lyrically, Hard Times catches what seems like a transitional moment. Because of Klein’s association with the Arabi Wrecking Krewe and his own loss in the post-Katrina flood, the band has been heavily associated with the hurricane, and “When the Levee Breaks” certainly reinforces that connection. Mullins and Klein’s songs both reference hard times and loss, but both seem to be looking for where to go from here. Both lyrics get a little hazy, either in their vagueness or privacy, but Bonerama is one band that really has remained in development since conception, even though it found its sound fairly early. Hard Times hints at where a band in constant transition might go next.
Part of what has set Garage a Trois apart from other jam/jazz/ funk aggregations is its intelligence and ability to follow through on a concept. 2005’s Outre Mer presented itself as a soundtrack to a French movie that didn’t exist, but it was done well enough to make the charade seem possible. On the new Power Patriot, the sound has changed a bit—Marco Benevento’s keyboards have replaced Charlie Hunter’s guitar—but the same governing intelligence remains. Enough attention is paid to the sound of each instrument in each song that each remains discrete, unified by a musical sensibility, not by the sameness of the instrumentation.
As the title implies, Power Patriot is often a muscular record. “Fragile” is anything but, and “Rescue Spreaders” is as disorientingly distorted as anything on the Flaming Lips’ Embryonic. It’s also often a very melodic album thanks to Mike Dillon’s vibes-based compositions. The highlight is “Dory’s Day Out,” a rather sweet piece that recalls the work of a number of Brian Wilson- influenced bands (the High Llamas come to mind).
On occasion, the album toes the waters of prog rock and Zappa-esque jazz, minus the Zappa, but its beauty is that the compositions rarely sound like set-ups for solos. Even at six minutes on the album, there’s a clear purpose for each piece that rarely includes lengthy solos. If anything, a few of these tracks could use someone to step out and burn for a bit.
The Threadhead Records phenomenon has reshaped the profile of the local recording industry, allowing veteran musicians to make albums that might otherwise not have happened, giving deserving new artists a jump start on their careers and even producing such delightful one shots as this year’s Christmas release. No musician has benefited from this breakthrough more than Paul Sanchez, who has established himself as an important solo artist since leaving Cowboy Mouth with no small help from the label. This is the third Threadhead-financed album Sanchez has made, and each has been remarkably different.
Sanchez has been preparing to make Farewell to Storyville his whole career. It’s an impromptu, mostly solo session in which Sanchez tells stories about each song before singing it, a standard folk music format that he’s perfectly suited to. When Sanchez left his New Orleans home for New York City in the 1980s to make his mark as a songwriter at the height of the fast folk and anti-folk movements that emerged out of the city’s post-punk club ethos, he played numerous gigs that resembled this session. In fact, one of the songs here, “Breaking My Back Up Front for You Baby” was written during that period. Toward the end of his run with Cowboy Mouth, he began playing acoustic house parties that also mirrored the shape of these performances. Folk music of this type is often autobiographical and there’s no shortage of such material here.
“Gonna play you some songs and tell you some stories,” he begins by way of introducing “Knives to Grind,” a reminiscence from his childhood in the Irish Channel. “I Dreamed I Saw My Father,” a song with the feel of a Fred Neil ballad, is a bittersweet rumination on a man Sanchez says he really didn’t know. He explains how Lillian Boutté introduced him to “Farewell to Storyville,” a song about days gone by that Sanchez gives a languid reading with vocal support from Debbie Davis. The song is poignant in New Orleans today, a point Sanchez brings home by following it with “Falling with Nowhere to Land,” a post- Katrina lament. “It’s my story,” he says. “It’s our story, it’s anybody’s story that’s lived here in the last few years.”
Sanchez brightens the mood with the merry Spanish language tune “Mota Mota Mota,” a reflection of his time spent in Central America after the storm. Themes of displacement, grief and plain old mental maladjustment continue to float through the album, taking different shapes. He lightens the mood, though, with the comic “Walked in the Club with Twenties” and sends everyone home smiling with the dark humor of “Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think.”
When a record like this works, you leave it feeling you’ve learned something intimate about the singer’s life, like a good conversation with a friend. Sanchez will have a lot of new friends after they listen to Farewell to Storyville.