Break out the hash pipe and heat up the gumbo — Dr. John is back again with music from that steamy, swampy place in your mind that only Dr. John can reach. Remedies is not get-it-on rock music; it’s too loose and languid for that. The rhythms — by far the best part of Dr. John’s music — are lyrical and liquid; they flow and throb, like blood, like fucking. Dr. John’s music is not mind-music, not body-music — at its best, it is emotional — beyond words, almost beyond form. It is ecstasy without pleasure, misery without pain.
Remedies is Dr. John’s third album, and his music has gone through some changes. Dr. John’s long-time collaborator, Mac Rebbenack, seems to have taken over the musical direction. He wrote and arranged all the songs. The choir of heavy ladies that haunted the first two albums has been replaced by a horn section. The sound is more solid, more predictable, almost rock-and-roll. Dr. John sings better than ever; his voice is rougher, raspier, meaner. In Dr. John’s mouth, a seemingly innocent song takes on a sinister and almost nasty edge; the melodies never seem quite solid. The singing sounds like a blood ritual made crude by a dark kind of dope. Satanic, the Kenneth Anger or Charlie Manson image.
The songs on Side One — the commercial side — are loose and rappy, full of funny rhymes, street slang, and double meanings. The opener, “Loop Garoo” is most like the songs on the first Dr. John album. The lyrics are magic incantations, incomprehensible, evocative. The rhythms are slinky and wet, and the horns sound like Wilson Pickett’s horn section lost in a swamp and stoned on belladonna. “Wash, Mama, Wash” is great — about a funky washerwoman who drinks too much and blows the family food money playing the numbers. The lyrics are just as funky as the subject; the chorus goes “Rub-adubba-dubba-mama, bustin’ suds/Scrub, mama, scrub.” After that, it just gets better. And the piano, the piano! “Chippy, chippy” is about: chippying. “Everybody in the neighborhood loves to chippy, and they chippy goooood.” And chippying is … well, if you don’t know, don’t mess with it. These songs are the most successful pieces on the album — they are so clever, so right-on.
Side Two consists of a 17-minute voo-doo aria called “Angola Anthem.” It is a long, meandering lyric on top of some good but aimless Afro drumming. The instrumental parts are sparse, weak, and easily lost. The lyrics, where they can be heard, do little to redeem the piece. They try to invoke the terror of living under a fascist regime in Angola, but the piece fails. And in a 17-minute piece, if you do not succeed, you really fail. Despite an occasional interesting part, the piece lacks drama, lacks words, lacks music. You can’t listen to it, and you can’t even dance to it.
Remedies is good Dr. John, but Dr. John is not for everyone. His audience is an esoteric bunch. If you dig jive, pure jive; if you dig dreaming, if you dig Wolfman Jack, if you ever order barbecue at 4 AM; if you get stoned to watch TV commercials while eating Colonel Sanders fried chicken and drinking warm Ripple — then you are weird enough for Dr. John. And he is, sure as sin and rain, weird enough for you.