By BEN RATLIFF
A NEW record by Mac Rebennack, a k a Dr. John, the blues-and-roots potentate, is no big thing per se; it happens every few years. Neither is Dr. John returning to his late-’60s coordinates of super-informed funk, representing the rhythmic trip of West Africa to the Antilles to the American Gulf Coast; he did that recently on “Tribal,” released a year and a half ago.
But “Tribal” probably didn’t go far beyond Dr. John’s own specialized listenership. What’s newsworthy about “Locked Down,” his new album, to be released by Nonesuch on April 3, is that he’s being nuzzled by someone young and much listened-to: Dan Auerbach, singer and guitarist of the Black Keys, the post-garage band that recently sold out a Madison Square Garden show in 15 minutes. Mr. Auerbach collaborated with Dr. John in a set at the Bonnaroo festival last June that I liked very much, with two drummers, backup singers and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. In it Dr. John sang old songs with twisted histories, and the show vibrated with bass, organ, low brass and quiet funk.
Soon after that they recorded “Locked Down” — Mr. Auerbach produces and plays guitar — which is a bit more preening and academic. It’s all original songs, clearly grown out of studio jams. There’s a single drummer here, one of the two from the Bonnaroo show: Max Weissenfeldt, of the German rare-groove band Poets of Rhythm. The keyboardist and bassist, Leon Michels and Nick Movshon, are from the El Michels Affair, one of the bands associated with Dap-Tone records from Brooklyn and the world of retro-funk that brought you the sound of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” record. (They’ve also both played in the touring version of the Black Keys.) The guitarist Brian Olive, once of the Soledad Brothers, whose own solo album “Two of Everything” was produced last year by Mr. Auerbach, is part of the same fraternity of backward-looking obsessives.
This record will find some fans among those who loved “Back to Black,” and it should. But have you ever wondered how hip is too hip? “Locked Down,” with its down-cold James Black drum rhythms, distorted Fender Rhodes keyboards and free-range, organically farmed reverb, is a useful test case. (By the way, go back and listen to Dr. John’s complicated, spaced-out record “The Sun, Moon & Herbs,” from 1971, when all recordings were analog: are we trying to out-hip that on its own terms?) If Dr. John weren’t grounding it with his casual essence, it might collapse under the weight of its own studied scuff.