Album Reviews

Dr John – The Best Of The Parlophone Years

(Parlophone) UK release date: 28 March 2005

“Well, at one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’sgone forever. All walks of life: George Best, for example. Had it, lostit. Or David Bowie, or Lou Reed…”. So speaks Sickboy to Rentonin Trainspotting. There is truth in this. Very few artists continue tocreate work of merit over a prolonged period of time. To David Bowie, LouReed and George Best you could add more recent names, like DavidBeckham, REM and The Chemical Brothers.

Has Dr John joined this uninspired club ?

Born Malcolm Rebennack in 1940, in New Orleans, Dr John has liveda colourful life. A session guitarist of some repute,he was forced to switch to piano after having a finger shot off whileprotecting a band mate. His life has been dogged by heroin addiction,death and voodoo. He cross-pollinated funk and psychedelic rock to birth”fonk” on his debut LP Gris Gris. Well versed in the musical history ofhis native city, his music has spanned across genres, calling in at thealters of blues, boogie woogie and old time rock ‘n’ roll.

This collection is taken from work in his later years, spanning theperiod from 1997 to the present day. It’s immediately striking that thelist of collaborators on the tracks is a marked difference from his heyday. In the 1970s he could call on the likes of Bob Dylan, TheRolling Stones, John Lennon and Van Morrison to add light and shade tohis recordings. He now has the pleasure of Ocean Colour Scene, Supergrass and The Beta Band for musical company. It’s like swappingThierry Henry for Jason Roberts. They are good at what they do but simplynot in the same league.

The music possesses a certain swagger and the musicianship is topdraw. After all his years in the business it would be amazing if itwasn’t. The problem is that a musical virtuosity can often stifle thecreative sprit. It becomes too easy to sit down and knock out a tune. Theability to self-edit disappears with the royalty cheques.

The vast majority of the tracks sound half-baked, thrown togetherwith an ease that strips the songs of warmth and passion. It’s like theywere written while Dr John switched channels on TV, the vocalsdripping out while he waited for the pizza deliveryman. It Don’t Mean A Thingstarts fluid and funky but stretches the idea out for nearly five-and-a-half minutes. Three minutes of it being funk for funk’s sake. PartyHellfire is musically turgid, crass chords and limp brass. I’m Gonna GoFishin’ is so forgettable that I struggled to recall anything about itbeyond its title, even after the tenth listen.

It’s not all bad. Marie Laveau is a smoothly told story of old timevoodoo pitched against a suitably Beale Street backing. Dr John’s laidback delivery perfectly suits the swamp gospel of Hello God, theLondon Community Gospel Choir adding the wings and the holyinspiration. Lay My Burden Down, a New Orleans funeral march, pitches Dr John’sgrumble against Mavis Staples‘ brimstone gospel voice. It’s acurious and effective mix.Sweet Home New Orleans, Dr John’s musical love letter to his hometown istouching and effective. Where much of the record sounds like it waswritten and recorded on auto pilot, here he sounds engaged and full ofpassion. The organ and piano playing is tight, the vocal aching andreverential.

Four tracks is not a great strike rate for nearly a decade’s worth ofwork. Mind, it’s still better than that of Paul McCartney. Maybehe can postpone his ‘lost it’ club membership for a few years yet.

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Dr John – The Best Of The Parlophone Years