This album was recorded while Dr. John was stranded in London; it was clearly born of his intense homesickness for New Orleans. As on his first album, this is Dr. John the pseudo-folklorist squeezing local color out of a tube that is fast drying up. Without vulgarizing it or describing it explicitly, Dr. John manages to suggest the whole voodoo culture in all its aging, fading, exotic seedy Creole backroom glory.
Next to Dr. John, other culturerevivers are lightweights. The Kinks trying to bring back World War II or any of the bands too numerous to mention which are now dabbling in the Twenties are hopelessly literal-minded in comparison. Dr. John conveys an intense feeling for a dying culture. To explain the obscure references to “Court Bouillons” and “Zu Zu Mamous” would take several jackets full of footnotes; instead the music itself annotates the lyrics. Dr. John has a glorious ear with a logic all its own that mixes ragtime with funeral marches with Haitian congas with Creole dialect with sinister stage whispers — all the authentic echoes of Storyville violence and torchlit rites on Lake Ponchartrain are there, artfully jumbled into a vibrant, personal evocation of New Orleans culture.
Of course, Dr. John has written other kinds of songs as well. In fact, his second and third albums contained such a crazy, unembraceable variety of material everything from Coltrane to soul that they sank like a couple of overloaded pirogues. Most people have no idea that Dr. John can write a breathtaking Van Morrisonesque ballad like “Glowin'” or a catchy Leon-Russellish number like “Wash, Mama, Wash.” Both got lost in the unhappy eclecticism of the albums. Anyhow, Dr. John’s aching nostalgia for N.O. has given his fourth the unity that the other two needed.
The center-piece of the album is “Familiar Reality,” a long cut based on one evil-sounding Stones-type riff, repeated relentlessly. It concerns John’s flashing deja vu all over the place, and the dark, almost martial accompaniment suggests a man with his mind stuck in a rut, fiercely trying to recollect where he has seen something before. The other songs on the album — all bits of New Orleans folklore — seem to spin off this one seminal number like sudden and inexplicable flashes of memory. “Familiar Reality” is the only number in which Dr. John used his own time-tested band; it contains the best playing on the record, especially John Boudreaux’s hypnotic, offbeat drumming.
On the other cuts, Dr. John used the Leon Russell/Delaney and Bonnie expatriate heavies — Clapton on slide guitar, Carl Radle on bass, Price and Keys on brass plus the Memphis Horns, and Jim Gordon, who many think is the best white drummer in the business. Not to mention Mick Jagger as an inaudible chorister and a whole batch of other musicians no less than four separate bassists. This big-time pick-up band sounds only slightly less funky than Dr. John’s own crew. As usual, Dr. John’s strength lies in his galvanizing, mesmerizing choruses (the ones on “Black John the Conqueror” and “File Gumbo” are unforgettable); his fatal weakness lies in trying to mime several extra minutes of music out of each melody. Dr. John’s lyrics sound nice, but there is very little meat in them; nor is he a great master of improvisation. So there is little excuse for his letting so many of the cuts run on for so long.
Furthermore, Dr. John is a true student of folklore and he sometimes runs to scholarly excess. There’s a song on this record called “Craney Crow” that you’re gonna skip every time. Dr. John taperecorded one of the traditional songs his little daughter sings, turned it around a little, threw in a women’s chorus and his own this – is – what – a – rattle – snake-would – sound – like – if – a – rattlesnake – could – talk voice. The result is a tedious museum piece. At other times, however, Dr. John’s authentic touches can be very effective. In the middle of “Zu Zu Mamou” there is a snatch of obviously genuine dialogue between two voodoo fanatics that makes your flesh creep.
With Dr. John albums, one always gets a good-sized helping of unusual music and a great deal of padding. This latest album contains tons of atmosphere, but as Horn and Hardart used to say, you can’t eat atmosphere; you can’t listen to it forever either. Dr. John is nearly in the same league as Leon Russell as a leader of session musicians, but once again he doesn’t have enough material to lead them through. If Dr. John could produce 12 three-minute nuggets on the next album — without betraying his New Orleans heritage -the result would not only be ideal, but just what the world needs: a little more voodoo.