Saturday, October 30, 2010

Offbeat New Album Reviews

By Brian Boyles on trumpeters

Kermit Ruffins, Happy Talk (Basin Street Records)
In 2007, Kermit Ruffins got married in Woldenberg Park during the French Quarter Festival. As his beloved bride Juicee mounted the stage, Kermit and the fellas pointed their horns in her direction and the audience roared. Just as things hit a crescendo, the Steamboat Natchez passed and blew its whistle. It was another epically sweet moment when you re-appreciate our intimacy with music. Grinning in of that bond for four decades now, Kermit is family.

I’d bet you a hot sausage that more New Orleanians per capita have stories about Kermit than any living musician. I thought David Simon said something when he talked about the city as a moment factory. Of course, unlike HBO, you and I can’t predict the moments’ arrival or if they’ll be punctuated with gunshots, and anyway, they don’t last. Fortunately for us (and Simon), Kermit is a foreman in that factory.

Remember Henri the emcee! Remember Emile the stone-faced pianist! Remember when No Limit decked out the band in football jerseys! All of us have been vipers, all aboard,all fo’shiggedy. These are unquantifiable,unrecorded gifts from our most public artist, whose voice isn’t perfect pitch but who’ll be there every week, telling you that New Orleans is home. Bumper-stickered out as that sentiment may be, it remains 100 percent fresh and heartfelt when Kermit growls it.

Like many recordings by seminal locals, these tracks only suggest the value of the artist—a temporarily detached from his environment and acoustics, perfectly produced piece of a man, but only a piece. You won’t learn anything you didn’t already know (Kermit loves the two Louis, Sinatra and the occasional show tune; he picks good sidemen; his trumpet sounds as fuzzily whimsical as ever).

Things kick off with “Panama,” featuring Mark Mullins and Dr. Michael White romping through the Caribbean flavored standard. (Should Kermit ever record an album of songs from the Southern Hemisphere, we’d learn a lot.) “More Today Than Yesterday” is great. “If I Only Had a Brain” seems long, but it also takes a salsa turn. Kermit’s unflagging dedication to Armstrong makes “Shine” and “La Vie En Rose” convincing, if not all that necessary.

But play a track in your car, or hear one on the radio, and feel your chest swell up with something very necessary: high hopes. The album consists of favorites from masters of sweetness and light like Sam Cooke, Sammy Cahn and Cy Coleman. As interpreters of fancy, of mosey, of the positive go, who’s better than Kermit?

We appear to be at the odd juncture where the roles of neighborhood champ and HBO character can co-exist in a city actively mutating and resolutely committed to its identities. Good for everybody that at least one person remains true and sounds good doing it.

By Jacob Leland on singers

Amanda Shaw, Good Southern Girl (Poorman Mayfield)Updated: Amanda Shaw’s third solo album proclaims, with its title, that it’s about the performer’s identity. That’s just as true of her debut, 2004’s I’m Not a Bubble Gum Pop Princess, but Good Southern Girl represents a more developed personal and musical statement. The new title is obviously intended to be something of a tongue-in-cheek description of Shaw herself, but it finds the artist looking to locate herself with respect to the Louisiana Cajun tradition she grew up with and the Nashville new country and Southern rock traditions towards which bubble gum pop princesses sometimes tend—and where they find mainstream success.

Good Southern Girlwas produced by Trina Shoemaker, who is perhaps best known for her work with Sheryl Crow on The Globe Sessions (1998) and C’Mon C’Mon (2002). It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that its drums and guitar, in particular, sound like they come from a Sheryl Crow record. Much of this album feels engineered for radio play and dancing at music festivals, in front of the kind of big stages that more tradition-minded performers usually can’t book. Shaw’s crossover effort bridges the gaps it notices between the various sections of her musical upbringing with aplomb, and its execution is impeccable.

There’s simply no arguing with her performances; she can play the fiddle. She’s precise, confident, and playful in her approach to soloing and, in particular, to the Cajun, Creole, country and traditional pieces sprinkled throughout Good Southern Girl. Traditionalists might wish that she’d kept that work further clear of arena-rock drums, twangy lead guitar and electric bass, but Amanda Shaw—good Southern girl though she may be—is 19 years old. She’s justifiably more interested in evolution and experimentation than in preservation.

By Ben Berman on Tony Hall

Dumpstaphunk, Everybody Want Sum
Quick. Think of the worst smelling spot in New Orleans. Funkier than that one unfortunate spot of land at The Fly right behind the elephant patch at the Audubon Zoo. Think the intersection of Bourbon and Conti during Mardi Gras, and then think of the receptacles those trash heaps get thrown into.

Dumpstaphunk is that funky.

Right off the bat, the verses in the opener “Sheez Music” trigger memories of Brothers Johnson’s “Ain’t We Funkin’ Now” with the involuntary leg motions to match. Most folks by now know the sheer power of Dumpstaphunk’s live show, but this track and others here sound huge coming out of the Maple Leaf’s house speakers between sets at their Sunday crawfish boils.

Some might take the Neville bait and compare Everybody Want Sum to the Meters’ later Warner Brothers albums, New Directions and Trick Bag, but a better comparison would be with the city’s other seminal ’70s funk outfit, Chocolate Milk. Like that great group, I thought I liked it most when the band sits back and slinks along in the pocket, as in the third song, “Do Ya.” The tempo lends itself to drummer Raymond Weber’s backbeats and the punchy horns that accent the bridges. But my preference might just be correlation. Ivan Neville’s clavinet and keyboard playing make the track a standout, and it makes you stand up at attention when they burst from that into “Gasman Chronicles” at a velocity faster than the vibrations of one of Nick Daniels’ bouncing bass strings. Raymond Weber plays drums on this workout like a funk robot programmed with Swiss precision to play 150 bpm breakbeats. If you make it through all five-plus minutes you’ll be doing that James Brown grunt, too.

If the album were a Dumpstaphunk concert at Tip’s, the song “Oughta Know Better” is when you would walk to one of the bars and replace your beer. But much of that feeling is impatience to get to the Zigaboo Modeliste-penned “Standin’ in Your Stuff,” and especially to its ascending-to-descending harmonies in the chorus. The guest horn section is a welcome addition on this one, lending those choruses, breaks, bridges and transitions even more muscle, like a sixth 400-pounder on an offensive line.

Bottom line—this is a party album. It’ll sound great when someone plays it on St. Charles before a Mardi Gras parade. The feelings of party records often get separated into those that are straightforward/earnest versus others that are ironic/removed, and it seems obvious where Everybody Want Sum stands. But how about this detail: the Producer credit went to Morgus the Magnificent.

By Alex Rawls on singers

Aaron Neville, I Know I’ve Been Changed (EMI Gospel)
In a city of maddening talents, Aaron Neville’s has been one of the most perplexing. His voice is a remarkable instrument that has too often been employed for pedestrian purposes. It’s hard to argue with his drift toward MOR—he’s not getting younger, and underpaid R&B legends are a dime a dozen—but people have wanted something more substantial: The angelic desire of “Tell It Like It Is;” the streetwise grit of “Hercules;” the spirituality of “Amazing Grace.” Next to those, another version of “Everybody Plays the Fool” is likable but disposable.

On I Know I’ve Been Changed, he has put his talents to excellent use. He’s singing gospel, and producer Joe Henry makes Neville’s voice and Allen Toussaint’s piano the focal points of each track. It’s Henry’s least obtrusive production, but you can hear subtle, smart decisions such as the choice to record the tambourines off-mic and with the treble rolled down. That keeps a native percussion instrument in the mix, evokes Mardi Gras Indians, but leaves plenty of room in the treble range for Neville.

The song choices are smart with few obvious selections, but Neville sings each with literal attention to the words. For the title track, he’s almost woozy with the good news, while he sings “Don’t Let Him Ride” as if he’s warning the listener about a trifling woman. Throughout, there’s an appealing buoyancy in his performances beyond his quaver, as if the transcendent subject matter has already lightened his load.

The arrangements don’t blur distinctions between gospel and other genres as much as they unify them. The frameworks reference country, folk and the blues, but Toussaint pulls them together by playing distinctly New Orleans piano accompaniment. His bounce spurs Neville’s inventiveness as a singer and adds a secondary charm to almost every track. His solo in “You’ve Got to Move” is as unexpected as it is compelling.

The blues and New Orleans underpinnings also show Henry’s hand a bit. His productions often treat American roots music as fine art, and here he uses beloved musical contexts to frame another genre—gospel—that has historically been so message-driven that those who don’t believe find it hard to stay with. He doesn’t betray the songs, the message or Neville, though. Instead, by integrating the songs in the history of American music—and particularly African-American music—he puts Aaron’s voice and art in a dynamic context, and one that music fans can easily return to, regardless of their beliefs.

By David Dennis on Young Money

Lil Wayne, I Am Not A Human Being (Cash Money Records)
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and jail time makes the rapper grow legendary. Lil Wayne’s arrest and subsequent eight-month sentence launched a “Free Weezy” campaign and creepy fan sites where pre-teens send daily love letters to the incarcerated Hot Boy. For an artist that dropped whole albums-worth of material every 12 minutes over the last five years, eight months is a lifetime. Finally, fans are salivating for new Lil Wayne material. I Am Not a Human Being gives them what they want. Sort of.

I Am Not a Human Being is a collection of songs that were left over from previous projects and obviously recorded months ago. The album is a breath of fresh air for those missing Weezy’s non-sequiturs, wacky voices and nimble flow. Though plenty of Young Money cohorts pop up for forgettable cameos, this is Lil Wayne’s world as he runs roughshod over the bass-heavy “Bill Gates” and double-time snares of “Hold Up (featuring T. Streets)” where Wayne raps “Pussy in the bedroom / pass that bitch down like an heirloom.”

While Wayne’s been off on his federally-sponsored trip to Mars, a few of his lyrical tricks have become dated. Over the past few months, Drake has all but buried the inverted metaphor (“Faded off the brown…Nino / Come and find me…Nemo”) to the point of making it obsolete. I Am Not a Human Being uses this trope a few times, with each serving as a reminder that these are indeed cutting room floor tracks recorded almost a year ago.

I Am Not a Human Being is a serviceable project that reminds us just how unique Lil Wayne is as an artist and personality. It’s also clear that the work is only a taste of his B-material, getting us ready for when Weezy is finally free to begin working on a real in-studio project. November can’t come soon enough.

By John Swenson on rock

Andy J. Forest, NOtown Story: The Triumph of Turmoil
If you’re a musician or band that makes a living in live performance, you probably have always wanted to make that killer live album that captures the magic of your best nights. But the best moments of live performance are almost always left in the setting where they occur, which is why some of the biggest names in New Orleans music have made inferior live albums. Recordings have their own mojo, and while many musicians use the studio conceptually, some are able to create a simulacrum of what they can achieve in live performance in a studio setting. The key is not the energy of the playing itself, and it’s defnitely not the interaction with listeners. It’s a subtle alchemy of the right material presented at the right pace and recorded with a precision that presents its own version of the excitement people associate with live performance. Creedence Clearwater Revival and the J. Geils Band made careers out of being able to cut records like that.

Andy J. Forest’s NOtown Story goes for this effect and for the most part pulls it off. While it won’t be confused with CCR or Bloodshot, it manages to achieve the aural equivalent of trompe l’oeil by simulating the excitement of Forest at his best in a club setting. The recording of the basic quartet—Forest, guitarist Jack Cole, drummer Allyn Robinson and bassist David Hyde—is crisp and uncluttered, with guitar, harmonica and vocals tipping into the red with a fierce, in-your-face presence. On “True to You,” those three elements come out of the speakers with the force of a Chess side by Muddy Waters with Little Walter on harp.

Forest’s songs tend to scan like novellas; here he keeps his lyrics to the bare minimum, sticking with simple concepts like “Who Are You Tryn’a Fool,” “Pretend We’re Not Pretending” and “You Gotta Pay.” The simplicity is effective as it’s in service of the story of the break-up of Forest’s real-life marriage. Less is definitely more when such situations are rendered in song, and Forest thankfully sticks to generalizations. The hot sex farce “Dogs Chase Cats” offers comic relief halfway through the set, and “The Blues Blues” is a great piece of self-actualization.

Forest is a multi-faceted songwriter who’s written some of the more interesting pieces about New Orleans over the years. This time around he’s letting off some emotional steam. In the process, he’s made what is probably his best-sounding record.

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