More often than not, it’s seemed like Dr. John has relied on the dark mysteries of his voice — rather than the material — to sell his records. Of course, what a voice it is: Full of wry sweetness, weed-smoke inscrutability and spicy indignation. That only goes so far, though, when you’re redoing satiny-smooth piffles like “Makin’ Whoopie.” And so Dr. John, too often, has worked almost in caricature, sounding like an empty-calorie jingle for his former self.
Still, when moved — either by the presence of an interesting collaborator (as on 1998’s Anutha Zone) or by the scalding aftermath of a hometown disaster (2008’s Katrina-themed City That Care Forgot) — Dr. John has shown he can still rise to the occasion. Locked Down, produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and featuring two members of the Keys’ touring group, is one of those times.
The project begins with a humid closeness, as night sounds surround the title track’s lean rhythms, and it never backs away. Auerbach matches Dr. John’s cranky hoodoo-man vocals, song by song, with his own brown-gravy groove — and, in a move that gives the album its signature sound, encouraged Dr. John to explore his familiar penchant for spooky funk at the organ.
Along the way, there are smart tips of the hat to the former Mac Rebennack’s initial incarnation as a crack early-rock sessions player: “Revolution” matches the angry pushback of City That Care Forgot, but scuffs it up with a jukey 1950s-style sax honk. The slyly swaying “Big Shot,” with another boisterous turn on woodwinds from Brian Olive, has the kind of boastful insouciance that would have been right at home on a thrift-store 45.
Then there are these blues-bending amalgams, moments like “Getaway,” when it seems like Dr. John has wandered into the deep-fried cross-pollinations of Black Keys session. (The rejuvenated Dr. John, moving right up to the mic, is moved to howl with delight.) “Kingdom of Izzness” recalls the friendly funk of Billy Preston, only done late into an evening of French Quarter revelry. Auerbach even finds a way to resurrect the jungle mysticism, layered cadence and mojo shouts of Dr. John’s classic work with the Meters on “Ice Age,” “Eleggua,” and “You Lie,” a high point here.
What you end up with is the best Dr. John album in ages, as swampy and oozy as the Night Tripper’s 1968 triumph Gris Gris but as gnarled and pointed as Anutha Zone — another halting comeback done three decades later that finally shucked off the A&R-man shackles of R&B/Tin Pan Alley safeness that had enveloped Dr. John into the 1990s. But unlike Anutha Zone, which occasionally came unmoored as it zipped through a series of guest appearances by the likes of Paul Weller and Jason Pierce, this new project stays firmly settled in Auerbach’s now-patented brand of primitivist rock.
It’s a stirring blend of Dr. John’s tough-minded hurricane laments of the last decade, but with this welcome jolt of good-natured fun.
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Locked Down, due April 3 from Nonesuch Records, also features Black Keys touring members Leon Michels (keyboards) and Nick Movshon (bass), who joined Auerbach and Patrick Carney on their tour in support of the superlative 2010 release Brothers; as well as drummer Max Weissenfeldt and the gospel-rocking McCrary Sisters on background vocals.
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