Monday, March 21, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 99 - Dr. John

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

(I'm returning late from a vacation, so I'm going to mix-up the usual format and instead address a question I occupied myself with during a lengthy car ride. We'll return next week to your regularly scheduled programming. In the meantime, please pardon my complete and utter exhaustion and any typos that occur as a result). 

I took a trip to New Orleans this weekend, and I was confronted with the age-old conundrum of tourism - visit the popular spots, those places that everyone associates with the city? Or go off the beaten path and discover some interesting, though not necessarily iconic, hidden treasures? Popular tourist spots are often tacky, presenting a caricature of the most popular stereotypes of the locale. But these are also the places that enter the public consciousness as cultural emblems.

Because of my trip this week, I chose to listen to Dr. John, who is one of New Orleans' most well-known musical figures. But I also found the same dilemma in listening to his music. Should I listen to his "touristy" music, the kitschy albums filled with bayou sound effects and references to voodoo witch doctors? Or should I listen to the "real" music of New Orleans, in which Dr. John covers old Louisiana blues standards from the 1950s?

The choice between the two came down to the two albums I had time to listen to this week. Gris-Gris (1968) is perhaps best described as psychedelic swamp rock. It was Dr. John's first solo album, and combines his rasping blues voice with some intricately arranged songs filled not only with wailing brass and plinking pianos, but also eerie drones, voodoo chanting, bongos, flutes and mandolins.

When I put this album on on Monday, it felt just like I expected a "New Orleans" album to. Dr. John is a master of the recording studio, and he creates amazingly evocative soundscapes - there's never any real melody, but he weaves in a lot of elements that rhythmically intersect, creating an aura that reminded me of creeping through a graveyard at midnight, or rafting through a foggy swamp with the light of a lone lantern. "Gris Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya" takes howling blues music and adds "voodoo" backing vocals and some jazzy brass. "Croker Courtbullion" adds swamp sound effects to the mix. How much more Louisiana can you get?

Well, Gris-Gris was produced by New Orleans natives, but they did it in sunny Los Angeles, and not the overgrown bayous that the music evokes. And as I listened and re-listened, I began to hear less and less of any sort of traditional music, and more and more psychedelic elements from the sixties - the Middle Eastern tinged "Danse Kalinda Ba Doom" or the percussion-heavy "Danse Fambeaux." These are still good songs, but I began to see the album as not so much integrating the myriad of New Orleans musical traditions, but parodying it, providing a cartoonish version of voodoo blues as a soundtrack to drug trips during the Summer of Love.

Dr. John's Gumbo (1973) is a far cry from the psychedelic drones of Gris-Gris, and the first time I heard this one, I wasn't sure what to think. Here, Dr. John gives up most of the creepy sound effects and large array of backing instruments to instead take a seat at the piano and provide cover songs of popular New Orleans tunes from the fifties. Whereas every song on Gris-Gris was an original, eleven out of the twelve songs on Dr. John's Gumbo are covers.

Listening to Gumbo on my drive to New Orleans, I thought it was rather boring, especially after the mysterious brilliance of Gris-Gris. Why did Dr. John retreat from his powerful, haunting sonic description of New Orleans to these nondescript piano tunes? No longer a witch doctor, this Dr. John is more akin to the singer at your local bar. Every song on Gris-Gris was overflowing with different sounds, while pretty much every track on Gumbo starts with a piano and Dr. John's gruff voice. It didn't seem to have as much personality.

But the more I listened to Gumbo, the more I came to appreciate what the record was doing. If Gris-Gris was Dr. John's invented New Orleans, then Gumbo was the real thing, the music from the city Dr. John grew up in, the hits from the decade he made his career as a session musician. And far from merely throwing on a bunch of cover songs, Dr. John makes Gumbo his own - you can hear the intricate sonic layers on "Iko Iko," the frantic energy on "Let The Good Times Roll," the raspy vocals on "Little Liza Jane." Gumbo manages to function as a greatest hits package for New Orleans in the fifties, but Dr. John also makes it his own personal music, and this combination is no small feat.

So, while on the drive to New Orleans, Gris-Gris completely got me in the mood for a wild mystical voodoo blues experience, while Gumbo left me cold. But on the drive back, Gris-Gris seemed cartoonish, a ridiculous album through-and-through, while Gumbo seemed like an impressive set of songs played with a great singer and an energetic backing band. Gris-Gris is the musical tourist trap, while Gumbo is the "authentic" experience.

But is one better than the other? Relistening to the music, Gris-Gris is certainly one of the most creative and unique albums I've ever heard. What's impressive is not that Dr. John pulls from all these New Orleans-tinged influences, but that he cobbles together this personal style from pretty much thin air. All concerns about the "authenticity" of the music aside, Gris-Gris succeeds as an album simply because it provides a strong statement of a great concept. It ain't New Orleans, but it's a fascinating aural description of the myth of New Orleans, the swamps and witch doctors and fog-shrouded cemeteries and old slave markets and jazz funerals.

So I'm torn. Gris-Gris is totally constructed but immensely entertaining; Dr. John's Gumbo is far more "authentic" without being iconic. It's nice to have a little of both. I certainly wouldn't want to have to choose between them. 

Best Song from Gris-Gris: "I Walk On Guilded Splinters"

Best Song from Dr. John's Gumbo: "Mess Around"

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: For my 100th week, I'll listen to Weezer, who I understand evokes a lot of strong feelings from other writers on this blog.