Saturday, May 19, 2012

Are two doctors better than one?

Along with better sanitation, medicine, education, irrigation, public health, roads, fresh water, baths and public order, another thing the Romans did for us was invent the doctor joke. I kid you not.

For the last couple of years experts on such things have been studying 256 side-splitters, written in Greek on a 3rd Century Roman manuscript, which includes this belter: "A doctor was talking to a patient. 'Doctor,' the patient says, 'Whenever I get up after a sleep, I feel dizzy. For half an hour, then I'm all right.' To which the doctor replies, 'Then wait for half an hour before getting up'. Ha, and, if I may, ha.

What history doesn't show is that it took another 700 years before the great Tommy Cooper improved upon this mirth with this gem: "Woman tells her doctor, 'I've got a bad back.' Doctor says, 'It's old age.' The woman says, 'I want a second opinion.' The doctor says: 'Okay - you're ugly as well.'" Fankuverymuch.

Unlike medical-themed comedy, music has found itself in the rudest of health in recent months. We've had - in no particular order of excellence - The Alabama Shakes' Boys And Girls, The Black Keys' storming El Camino, the return of Dodgy with Stand Upright In A Cool Place, Jack White's BlunderbussBruce Springsteen's Wrecking BallPaul Weller's Sonik Kicks, Lana Del Rey's Born To Die and the truly stunning Standing At The Sky's Edge from Richard Hawley.

Such has been the volume of great albums coming out in recent weeks that it's taken a month to commit thoughts to blog on a brace of stunners from a pair of musical sawbones, Dr Robert and Dr John, but if you find yourself perusing your preferred music emporium this weekend - virtual or bricks and mortar - give one or all of these a try.

A year and a recent visit to a Spanish cardiovascular unit on from the release of The Blow Monkeys' exceptional Staring At The Sea, Bruce Robert Howard - the good Dr Robert to you and me - is back with an welcome blast of Mediterranean sunshine, Flutes And Bones (actually, and at risk of making awful political commentary about overworked doctors, Robert has actually brought out two solo albums - more of which in a moment).

Howard is one of Britain's most under-rated songwriters. It has baffled me for a long time why his profile isn't higher, or has been maintained to the heights he enjoyed in the 80s hey-days of The Blow Monkeys, the pop-soul-funk outfit who were a core of the white soul movement led by The Style Council and Animal Nightlife, as well as other popstrels like Curiosity Killed The Cat and Johnny Hates Jazz.

Hits like Digging Your Scene and It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way wrapped atypically mid-80s social and political commentary into beguiling pop, exemplified by their third album, She Was Only A Grocer’s Daughter - a delightful titular dig at Margaret Thatcher which even featured a collaboration with the legendary Curtis Mayfield.

With the deade's revival of agit-prop and CND, not to mention the establishment of protest camps at  the Greenham Common airbase by hardy-looking women, The Blow Monkeys joined in the soulful protest movement of the time. Alongside Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and Ken Livinstone at Red Wedge concerts, they endeavoured to ensure their music said something. Whoops! There Goes The Neighbourhood in 1989 took a hefty stance on many issues, including apartheid, while still staying on the funky side of soulful with songs like Wait featuring Kym Mazelle.

A split in the 90s saw Howard write and record with Weller, contributing to his self-titled solo debut as well as the Wild Wood and Stanley Road albums. In 2002, Robert moved his life to a village near Granada in Spain for a change of pace. For someone whose pop star image had been achingly cool, this was a befitting destination.

Put the pop star away, however, and you get Dr Robert, the gifted songwriter, velvet-smooth singer and a none-too-shabby guitarist, either. In between Blow Monkeys projects he has produced a steady stream of well received solo albums, including Five In The Afternoon, his 2007 project with soul singer P.P. Arnold which deserves to be played at least once a day, every day during the summer months.

To that summer playlist, add Flutes And Bones. Normally "more of the same" would suggest a lack of creative adventure, but in this case, it is just what the doctor ordered - a life-enhancing dose of exquisitely produced white soul with heavy traces of funk, blues and relaxing, siesta-sleepiness of Andalucian village life.

It's a top-down, cabriolet car car ride through bucolic hillside communities, inspired almost exclusively by the remote mountain village near where Robert now lives. Its title comes from a poem by Spanish laureate Federico Garcia Lorca about the death of a bullfighter, but the album itself is a far more genteel affair, capturing dozing whitewashed streets on track after track, from the looping acoustic guitar of Steal The Silver, to the lyrically more obvious Place In The Sun, the easy-going Face In The Rock and the album's closing title track, a pretty three-minute instrumental that will no doubt turn up on Spanish travel documentaries at some point. And if it doesn't, it should.

Flutes And Bones frequently offers Robert a platform to show off his impressive acoustic and electric guitar chops - particularly the single release, Coldheart, with its haunting and docile rhythm, Fools Gold-style double-tracked, echo-heavy vocal and woozy-bluesy soloing. But to appreciate his guitar playing further, Robert has simultaneously released Acoustic Blow Monkeys, a collection of ten tracks from his band's 31-year catalogue, 're-imagined' for a stripped down, man-and-guitar approach.

It is an album for fans, but if you were to come across The Blow Monkeys for the first time via this record, you wouldn't feel disappointed.

Some songs take on a new note: Digging Your Scene, for example, a once-sprightly 80s pop song takes on jazzier feel, with just a wah-wah pedal to funk it up a step, although the addition of electic guitar to the acoustic fills out the track further.

It Doesn't Have To Be This Way, on the other hand is the least different from the original. The Monkey's biggest hit, it makes an effortless transition here from the light pop of the original to the sparse, acoustic jazz without losing any familiarity.

Some - like Wait and Slaves No More sound, unsurprisingly, like different songs when removed from their 80s dance setting, but then that should be the expectation of an album which, on paper sounds like a solo singer-songwriter strumming away on his own in a Spanish hotel bar, but in reality feels well filled out by Howard's acoustic and electric guitars, and a 52-year-old voice that sounds deeper than it did almost three decades ago.

Fans of The Muppet Show will be familiar with Animal, the Venus Flytrap-eyebrowed drummer of indeterminate species, who flailed away at the back of the Electric Mayhem Band in a felt hybrid of Keith Moon, Cozy Powell, Carl Palmer and just about every showboating rock drummer to ever sit at a drum stool.

Often forgotten, sadly, is the band's spindly leader and ivory-tinkler, Dr Teeth - he of the crooked stovepipe hat and brick wall of teeth interrupted by a solitary gold one, long before Madonna made such accoutrements fashionable.

Teeth's characterisation as a slightly wonky keyboard player was no accident: Jim Henson himself based the character on legendary New Orleans voodoo-blues, funk and jazz pianist Dr John.

Born Mac Rebbennack - a name better suited to an Elmore Leonard novel, perhaps - Dr John has been one of the most acclaimed and enigmatic exponents of both boogie and woogie since emerging in the late 60s as a distinctive flavour of those creatively expressive times. His entry to piano playing might well have come out of one of Leonard's stories too: originally a guitar player, Rebbenack was playing guitar at 21 until losing part of a finger through gunfire while trying to protect a friend from getting pistol-whipped.

After several years of authentic New Orleans jazz albums - many, since Hurricane Katrina did her worst in 2005, in support of efforts to restore The Big Easy (and a fine job, too, as WWDBD? discovered last September), the 'Night Tripper' himself has returned to his early sound with what is, for me, one of the albums of 2012 - Locked Down.

Produced by The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach - doing the sort of career reboot that T-Bone Burnett and Rick Rubin have done for others, and a deliberate measure by Auerbach to get John's profile up - Locked Down is a delicious, Louisiana stew of vintage R'n'B and the jazz-tinged groove.

From the off, the title track's Lalo Schifrin-meets-Sergio Leone off-kilter groove sets the expectation level high for something special.

Locked Down is not just an opportunity for the 71-year-old Rebbennack to dust off his old electric piano chops, but dig into contemporary themes that have been burning him up.

Revolution takes a swipe at the political climate at a toe-tapping Stax pace, while Big Shot takes on pomposity with the sort of urban urgency that have made The Roots such a compelling band to listen to and watch (and what they're doing as the house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon baffles still).

Of all the deliberately retro twists, Ice Age takes the biscuit for its rigid African funk groove - one you suspect could easily be jammed out all night long - and laded with John's gumbo-grizzled growl gurgling over the top in an attack on societal ills like Crack and supposed conspiracy theories involving the "CIA, KKK - all playing in the same game".

Auerbach's influence on this album is more than just cheerleading a legend back to prominence (although his apparent offer to "produce the best record you've made in a long time" was a pretty compelling proposition). Hand-picking the musicians, Auerbach has enabled John to delve deeply into funk's past, with tracks like Kingdom Of Izzness and Eleggua applying the sort of liveliness that Curtis Mayfield and Issaac Hayes made classic blaxploitation movies like Foxy Brown and Shaft ease on down the road so entertainingly.

To close Locked Down, John walks down the aisle of swinging gospel funk with God Sure Good, a redemptive, spiritual acknowledgement of, perhaps, some higher purpose. John has enjoyed a colourful existence, and the impact of Katrina on New Orleans has clearly had its impact on him: "God been good to me/Better than me to myself/Pick me up, open the gates of hell/Made me well, told me a lesson/Brought me blessing/God don't be resting".

One of the most refreshing aspects of Locked Down is that it allows Dr John to stray from his 'Professional' Louisianan persona, his Crescent City version of the Pearly King, all swamp blues, zydeco and creole. It's delicious brew of old and new - an allegory itself for the New Orleans emerging from its recent travails -  disassociates John from the Lousiana voodoo his career has largely been associated with (an affectation of the Dr John character, as opposed to Jimmy Page's alleged private dabbling in the black arts of Aleister Crowley).

It wouldn't be right to see this as another reboot, good as some of the work that Rubin and Burnett have done elsewhere. Auberach has reached into Dr John's beating heart and found a musical essence to add into a swirling cauldron of the finest funk, rhythm and blues and soul that you'll hear this year, and maybe next too.

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