Tommy Malone was not lacking for work as a musician, not with his frontman role in one of the best and beloved roots bands going, the Subdudes. This underrated talent had basically handed his career over to this New Orleans favorite on and off from 1987 until the band went into indefinite hiatus at the end of 2010. That gave Malone the opening to finally follow up on his first studio solo record since Soul Heavy (2001), which also come forth during a prior time the band was on ice.
With Malone able to mind his solo career full time for over two years now, it’s almost scary to think of what a well-rested Malone will come out with. You see, Malone is how Chris Smither might have sounded had he never left his native New Orleans and headed up to Boston early in his career. Malone left New Orleans too, a forced refugee from Katrina, but he made his way back from Tennessee five years later. Three years after that, we have Natural Born Days.
Natural Born Days is the sound not of someone who just made only his second album; it’s the music over someone whose been at this for some forty plus years as Malone has. Likewise, he took into the studio with him some of New Orleans’ best seasoned session vets: keyboardist Jon Cleary, second guitarist Shane Theriot, drummer Doug Belote and bassist David Hyde. Oh, and the sweet harmonies of Susan Cowsill, too.
Malone is a true triple threat, as a singer, songwriter and guitarist, with a slide as penetrating and ardent as anyone from Louisiana not named Sonny Landreth. As nothing on this album is overdone (or underdone), whenever Malone slides it’s a treat. Like when delivers it on the Stone-sy crunch of “Home,” or on the swampy strutting Credence vibe of “Mississippi Bootleggers.” Even without the slide, he’s mighty effective on guitar, whether it’s the tasty, stinging solo heard on “Wake Up Time,” or the percussive unaccompanied acoustic guitar working in perfect synergy with his stomping foot on “Hope Diner.”
His voice adapts so well to the material at hand because he’s got plenty of gears in his voice. He can show aching, old-style emotion in the style of Bobby Bland as he does on the smoky, Memphis B3 powered soul number “God Knows…”, a little twang in his croon for “Mississippi” and the earnest, exposed vocal turns he performs on the heartbreak ballads like “Didn’t Want To Hear It.”
Ultimately, though, it’s the songs that puts Natural Born Days over the top. Malone, whose compositions have been covered by Tab Benoit, Joe Cocker and his brother’s band The Radiators, doesn’t need help in crafting them, but he struck up a songwriting partnership with old Dustwoofie band mate Jim Scheurich anyway. The outcome if this alliance shows up in half of these twelve tracks. They dwell on tried and true themes of heartbreak, hope and perseverance with a fresh passion — “Distance,” “Important To Me” and “Life Goes On” all connect in that way — but it’s the defiantly buoyant “No Reason” with a spectacularly surging vocal performance by Malone that feels inspired by the Righteous Brothers and could easily be mistaken as a darn good Springsteen song.
No song might be more personal to Malone than the aforementioned blues-rockers “Home,” which is a celebration of his return to his hometown. “I might live in the city of sin,” he sings, “but they’re lining up just to try to get in.” Tommy Malone is at the very center of that rich musical culture that’s got everybody tripping over themselves to get inside this so-called dirty, seedy town. Natural Born Days is a clear, bright signal that New Orleans’ best days musically are with us again.
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