Dr. John’s Creole Moon

81o721IBmPL._SL1300_Patrick O’Donnell penn this review.

If somebody tells you to pick up the latest album by Malcolm John Rebennack, you’ll probably say, “Huh? Who dat?” But if somebody says, “Dr. John,” then it’s a pretty sure bet you’ll know just what’s being prescribed: a dose of good ole Creole medicine for the soul.

A force known to move the critics since the early 1960s, Dr. John has been making his own brand of music for four decades. While he hasn’t had much chart-topping success, almost anyone who’s got an ear for jazz, blues or R&B can tell you he’s the cat who did “Right Place, Wrong Time.” And anyone with half a brain who listens to him can tell you he’s damn good at what he does.

His bourbon growl gives his music a distinct flavor that says, instantly, “Dr. John.” And no bad aftertaste, either. It’s smooth like sandpaper, soft like steel wool. And piano? He’s one of the few who plays a piano the way it should be played: with a vengeance. No tickling the ivories here.

The album features Dr. John on (of course) lead vocals and keyboards; Sonny Landreth on slide guitar; Renard Poche on guitar and background vocals; Charley Miller on flute and trumpet; Michael Doucet on fiddle; Alonzo Bowens on baritone sax; Theodore Arthur Jr. on soprano & alto saxes; Eric Traub on tenor sax; David “Fathead” Newman on sax; Kevin Louis on trumpet; David Barad on bass and background vocals, Herman “Roscoe” Ernest III on percussion and background vocals; Fred Wesley on trombone; and Catherine Russell and Nikki Richards on background vocals.

Creole Moon, is a healthy shaker of funk, a pinch of blues, a dash of jazz and a helping of rock mix well with the New Orleans base he’s prepared for his 23rd (not counting live or “best of” releases) album. Though it’s a great release and was a Grammy nominee, the album misses some of its potential. Despite a supposed reliance on a variety of musical styles, it suffers a bit from sameness. The liner notes give descriptions for each song — a little “West African groove” here, a “flamenco” touch there — but the tunes’ sounds are, by and large, undeniably funk-based.

The album’s salvation comes in the subject matter. For one thing, it’s a very personal, down-to-earth look at life; mayhap the observations of an older, wiser Dr. John (he was 58 when the album was released). In the liner notes, he says Creole Moon is his “interpretation of New Orleans.” It seems more a study of the human condition; of which New Orleans, perhaps, is just a microcosm.

The opening track is a case in point: “You Swore.” It takes a harsh, put-your-foot-down kind of look at a woman who’s broken one promise too many. “The girls have an answer to everything, as if I ain’t heard enough backtalk in my life already,” writes Dr. John in the liner notes. The song illustrates his point perfectly: Instrumentation is limited; heavy percussion, some standout sax and a strong keyboard groove. And the lyrics are priceless:

“You’ve got me drinkin’ gasoline,” growls Dr. John.

“Say what I wanna say,” retort the backup singers.

“Chasin’ it with kerosene,” he grumbles on.

“Do what I wanna do,” they reply.

Then, later:

“You swore you’d be home, yesterday,” he says.

“You can look but you can’t find,” they agree.

His retort: “You can nail me to the floor./You can scrape me off the door./

I forgot more than you know/ain’t gonna put up with you no more.”

There’s the bluesy “Imitation of Love,” a mournful look at a couple going through the motions without the emotion. The James-Brown inspired “Food For Thot,” which boasts a tight little horn section, presents some interesting — not to mention funny — points to ponder, such as:

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

You can send a fool to college/but you can’t make him think.”

and “Now day breaks and don’t never fall./Night falls and don’t never break.” “Monkey & Baboon,” a tasty little tune, delves into the lives of a group of miscreant animals. Thing is, these crime-loving critters act a lot like the rest of us. Coincidence? Hmmm …

“One 2 a.m. Too Many” is a sad look at an aging drunk who’s spent too much time in the bar but can’t turn back the clock. I’m sure you’ve seen him if you’ve spent any time out on the town. He’s the foppish guy in the corner laughing too hard at everyone elses’ jokes; the fellow in the rumpled business suit trying to make a move on the disinterested, much-younger blonde; the elderly gent bent over his drink, looking for all the world like he should be home in a rocking chair instead of at a bar table, rocking on his chair.

Overall, Creole Moon is solid. Tight arrangements, witty lyrics and honest emotion make it stand out from the crowd, in a way only Dr. John can.

(Bluenote, 2002)

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Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don’t always.

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