An altogether welcome updating of an unusually gilded resume.
Andrew Mueller 2010-06-17
To become a genre unto oneself must be the supreme dream of any artist, and it was one realised by venerable New Orleans rhythm & blues institution Dr John decades ago. He is therefore familiar with the other edge of this particular Excalibur: that it makes it next to impossible to surprise your audience, at least short of doing something plain silly, like appearing on stage dressed as a panda, or collaborating with Sting. It is therefore both a compliment and an expression of sympathy to note that, at this point, it is barely necessary to listen to a Dr John song entitled Feel Good Music, as the opening track of this album is: you already know, down to the last exquisite swell of piano and languidly drawled vocal, exactly what it is going to sound like.
And indeed it does, as indeed does much of Tribal – this is very much Dr John doing what Dr John does. Which is no problem in itself, but the really good news is that the peaks of Tribal stand serious comparison with the albums on which his reputation was founded (specifically, his 1968 debut, Gris Gris, and his 1972 New Orleans anthology, Dr John’s Gumbo).
When I’m Right (I’m Wrong), Whut’s Wit Dat and Change of Heart are signature Dr John: big-hearted, sinewy funk, garlanded by one of those blessed voices which seems to find greater depth and range with age (bearing down on 70, Dr John has never sung better than on Tribal, and never more so than on the beautiful string-drenched ballad Lissen at Our Prayer).
There is a lot to take in here – Tribal contains 16 deeply detailed, fidgety tracks – but it’s never hard work. It’s a warm, gently funny album – Them suggests Van Morrison with a sense of humour, and Only in America has a whiff of the waspish wit of Randy Newman.
As a whole, it’s an altogether welcome updating of an unusually gilded resume.