DR. JOHN-LOCKED DOWN.

DR. JOHN-LOCKED DOWN.

One of the great survivors of music is Dr. John. It seems be’s been around since the  dawn of rock ‘n’ roll. He was at the peak of his creativity between 1969 and 1974. During that time, Dr. John was on a roll that people thought would never end. Critically acclaimed albums included his 1968 debut album Gris-Gris, through 1969s Babylon, 1970s Remedies, 1971s The Sun, The Moon and The Herbs, 1972s Gumbo, 1973s In the Right Place  and Desitively Bonnaroo released in 1974. Then this run of critically acclaimed albums came to a grinding halt. After that, Dr. John seemed to lose his mojo and indeed his way musically. Albums became hit and miss affairs. Since then, his music been in and out of music several times. There were the occasional promising album, including 1989s In A Sentimental Mood, an album of old jazz standards. After that, it was another decade before Dr. John was reborn. 

With the help of a new generation of musicians, including Paul Weller and producer John Leckie, Dr. John released Anutha Zone in 1998. Anutha Zone brought Dr. John back into the public’s consciousness. A year later, he released Duke Elegant, an album of covers of Duke Ellington classics. It seemed that Dr. John was back and on another roll. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. 

Again, albums became hit and miss affairs. The next eleven years saw the odd glimpse of greatness, including 2006s Mercenary, an album of Johnny Mercer covers and 2008s The City That Time Forgot. Other albums were patchy affairs. Now into his sixth decade releasing albums, Dr. John recently released Locked Down, which was produced by Dan Auberbach of The Black Keys. Could Locked Down see the second coming of Dr. John, albeit with the help of another generation of musicians Dan Auberbach? That’s what I’ll now tell you.

Before Dr. John recently released Locked Down, his previous album was 2010s Tribal. Like Tribal, Locked Down sees Dr. John joined by his regular backing band The Lower 911. McCrary Sisters, Regina Ann and Alfreda add backing vocals and Black Keys’ guitarist and producer Dan Auberbach adds guitar, percussion and backing vocals. Dan Auberbach also cowrote the ten tracks with drummer, percussionist and backing vocalist Max Weissenfeldt and Dr. John. It’s this combination of creative talents that are attempting to recapture the critical acclaim and commercial success Dr. John enjoyed between 1969 and 1974. Will that be the case and will Locked Down be a return to form from one of music’s great survivors Dr. John?

Locked Down opens with the title-track Locked Down, where Dr. John throws his first curveball. There’s an eerie sound with Dr. John whispering mysteriously, before his band launch into the track. The Lower 911’s rhythm section, Hammond organ, percussion and waves of backing vocal join Dr. John’s gnarled vocal. Straight away, you’re left feeling slightly disappointed. Something is lacking. This just isn’t the Dr. John of old. Even the addition of dramatic, riffing rocky guitars, washes of wailing Hammond and some impressive, soaring harmonies don’t lift the track. Sadly, the track fails to live up the overblown hype in the sleeve-note of a return to greatness. Instead, it’s a return to mediocracy and disappointment.

Driving rasping horns join the rhythm section in driving Revolution along. When Dr. John’s vocal enters, the grittiness and growl of previous albums is lacking. Part of the problem is the sheer volume of the rest of the arrangement. It overpowers his vocal. As the harmonies enter, it’s as if they’re picking up where they left off in the opening track. There are several problems with the song. The lyrics are akin to something a sixth-form musician would write. Other problems are the sound quality and that the arrangement lacks direction. It seems Dr. John has been taken outside his comfort zone and is struggling to contend with this and lacking the direction. As for the arrangement, it’s a fusion of styles that sits uncomfortably together.

Big Shot has a much more promising sound as the track opens. There’s more of a New Orleans’ sound and The Lower 911 seem to perform better. Bursts of growling horns and guitars accompany Dr. John as he deliver a grizzled vocal. Harmonies sweep in, adding their celestial sound. Space is left in the arrangement with the horns and harmonies key to sound. Dr. John sounds more at home, fusing jazz and R&B with a sound that’s got New Orleans written all over it. While hardly vintage Dr. John, it’s a vast improvement on the previous tracks. Maybe, Locked Down has been unlocked.

Guitars and dramatic bursts of drums open Ice Age as Dr. John and his band seek to unlock his own unique brand New Orleans music. Deploying a pounding bass, riffing guitars and braying horns and cascading harmonies to accompany Dr. John’s whispered, sometimes sinister vocal, you get a glimpse of the track’s potential. Sadly, there’s a muddy sound to the track. Percussion and keyboards are added and sit comfortably in the mix. Later, Dr. John has found his voice, his delivery atmospheric and moody, helped by the harmonies that accompany him. Ice Age is a good track, but one that could’ve been much better. If the sound was less muddy, then this track would really thaw out.

Getaway opens with keyboards panned way left, before The Lower 911 launch into the track. When they do, it’s almost without purpose. Producer and supposed bandleader Dan Auberbach needs to rein them back or shout cut. The band gallop away. A standup bass, guitar and piano making a run for it. Despite the lack of direction, Dr. John and his band somehow, by the skin of their teeth and through a wealth of experience, pull things together. Dr. John’s vocal is feisty and gnarled with waves of harmonies accompanying him. Sometimes, the track becomes frenzied and dramatic, as jazz is fused with a twist of blues, rock and R&B. After a worrying start, Dr. John and his band almost manage to turn the track around. Sadly, in doing so, they only reach the height of mediocracy.

Kingdom Of Izzness has a promising start, with buzzing keyboards, rhythm section and occasional guitars combining with Dr. John’s best vocal so far. As if spurred on, angelic harmonies join the mix. Handclaps are added as if sensing things have taken a turn for the better. Dr. John seems to sense this, testifying, asking “can I have a witness?” Meanwhile, the keyboards which seem out of place, join the rhythm section and guitars take care of business, as the best song so far, on Locked Down unfolds. Then just as Dr. John and his band hit a groove, far too soon, the track’s over, almost as if the tape ran out. Despite this, this is much more like Dr. John at his best.

A crystalline bluesy guitar opens You Lie with a sound straight out of a Black Keys album. Then blazing horns join a driving rhythm section and Dr. John grizzled vocal. It’s not unlike Dr. John meets The Black Keys as blues, rock, jazz and R&B combine. As the arrangement drives along, much of Dr. John’s trademark sound has been dispensed with. Replacing it, is something more suited to a Black Keys album. There’s a slightly experimental, jazzy sound to the track, but one that works. This is helped along by the McCrary Sisters’ backing vocals which sit amidst the track, as Dr. John and The Black Keys music merges into one.

As Eleggua unfolds, the drama build and builds. Drums and a wave of Hammond organ combine with backing vocals that are straight off a seventies funk album. Dr. John’s rasping, throaty vocal is accompanied by thunderous drums, keyboards and harmonies. The drums almost overpower everything else, including Dr. John’s ad libbed vocal. Searing guitars join the mix, while woodwind is added as the track combines elements of classic funk, jazz and rock. While not the best track Dr. John has ever recorded, it’s still better than much of Locked Down.

Melancholy keyboards give a hint that My Children, My Angels might be something special. They meander along before the bass and the rest of the rhythm section join Dr. John’s worldweary vocal. By now it’s almost a eureka moment, when you realize this could be the old Dr. John’s belated arrival. Backing vocalists join him, and by now you’re hoping against hope that nothing goes wrong. Even Dan Auberbach rocky guitar doesn’t disappoint and as Dr. John sings “don’t take the easy road,” you realize he’s on the right road, the road to creating the best track on Locked Down.

There’s a real rocky introduction to God’s Sure Good, which closes Locked Down. Waves of searing guitars and the rhythm section combine before Dr. John’s heartfelt vocal enters. He’s accompanied by a Hammond organ, punchy backing vocalists and the rocky combination of the rhythm section and guitar licks. Later, the McCrary Sisters add their angelic vocals, helping Dr. John and The Lower 911 close Locked Down with another of its highlights. 

It’s somewhat ironic that Locked Down is such a disappointing album from Dr. John given the bluster, hyperbole and hype in the sleeve-notes. Talk of a return to form for Dr. John like his music between 1969 and 1974, is to put it kindly, wishful thinking or to be blunt, delusional. Part of the problem is the collaboration with producer and supposed bandleader Dan Auberbach. Rather than come to the sessions for Locked Down with a musical palette filled with colors, his palette is restricted to the faux blues rock of The Black Keys. So, instead of Locked Down sounding anywhere near a Dr. John album, in places, it sounds more like a Black Keys album, with Dr. John adding guest vocals. Maybe the next time Dr. John decides to collaborate with another artist, he should make sure that they’ll remember that they’re recording a Dr. John album.

Talking of Dr. John’s vocals, they don’t have the presence of his earlier albums. Sometimes he’s a shadow of his former self. In many ways, this saddens me. So too does having to write such a critical review. However, there’s no other way of describing Locked Down as an album that doesn’t rise much above mediocre. It really is a disappointing album and a real disappointment. Indeed so disappointing is Locked Down, it’ll be a long time before I revisit it. Of all the albums Dr. John has recorded since his 1998 comeback Anutha Zone, this is quite simply his most disappointing. For anyone whose yet to hear Locked Down, and thinking of buying it, don’t. Instead, do yourself a favor, and buy a couple of Dr. John’s classic albums from 1969-1974. That will allow you to hear Dr. John in his prime, when critical acclaim and commercial success were constant companions. Standout Tracks: Big Shot, Kingdom Of Izzness, Eleggua and My Children, My Angels. 

DR. JOHN-LOCKED DOWN.

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