Record #2: American Tunes by Allen Toussaint
This is one of the records I picked up from the local section of Euclid records. Stylistically it could not be further from the A Giant Dog record I reviewed previously. I also disagree with Discogs that it should succeed A New Dog alphabetically, but here we are. This album was pulled from my current listening queue, which consists of the best of my selection from New Orleans artists.
I grew up in Colorado and can't name any local musicians off the top of my head, but when you live in New Orleans for any amount of time there are a few names you just become familiar with through no effort of your own. Professor Longhair and the Neville brothers come to mind (as do the Meters and the Funky Meters), Dr. John and Harry Connick Jr. I can't recall where or how I first learned of Allen Toussaint, but when I was in Euclid records and saw his name I knew I would enjoy his work just by the context and the name recognition.
There were a few of his albums in the stacks. I picked this one for two reasons. The sticker on the plastic declared that it was his final album, and from the song credits on the back it seemed like this could be a modern American Songbook of sorts, though I didn't recognize any of the songs by their names.
Allen is featured on the front and the back of the gatefold jacket. Not knowing much about the man other than his name and that he played/wrote music it is good to put a face to the name. The inside of the jacket features little black and white snapshots of scenes around NOLA and feels very much like the sort of photographs that are taken by high schoolers in an intermediate photography class. From the Po-Boy sign to the cracks in the streets/sidewalks it is impossible to mistake the subject of these photos as anything but New Orleans, the New Orleans you get to know only when you live there for some time. It does a great job of setting the scene without showing cliched beads in trees over streetcars or tourists spilling hand grenades just off of Bourbon street.
If the photos make it clear that this is a record based in New Orleans, the tracks on Side A do nothing to dissuade that notion. Thematically they are what I would expect to hear on a quiet Tuesday afternoon in the quarter. My earliest exposure to New Orleans music would have been Woody Allen and his band in New York, but this record is closer to what I came to know as the sound of NOLA after I started living there. Ironically, I am listening to this while unrelenting, dense wet snow is dumped just outside the window next to which my record player sits, and yet the songs on Side A are somehow exactly perfect for this sort of day.
Bright, laid-back piano introduces us to this album on "Delores' Boyfriend," the first track on Side A. I like that this album starts with a Toussaint song. If this is not the first time he recorded this song I would very much like to have a listen to the original to see if he played a different version for this record.
Side B starts off with a slow tune, a waltz. I could see this being played in the lobby of the Higgens hotel at the National WWII Museum. The tempo picks up with Big Chief. I can hear this song being paired with a silent film-era drama-comedy based in NOLA, bouncing from theme to theme. Rocks in my Bed is a Duke Ellington piece, sung here by Rhiannon Giddens. While she performs the song well, the tune has a refrain that makes it a bit of an earworm. It would be a great song for brunch in the quarter.
Danza, OP 33 3:27 has a "let's have dinner on the river in 1885" sort of feel to it. You can hear the riverboats. It's an Americana tune for sure, very much in New Orleans, but definitely not in the hokey sort of way that you would in a mid-90's Will Smith period comedy. Hey Little Girl rounds out side B with a more modern piano-driven NOLA tune.
Side B is really starting to show how this is an album of American tunes performed by a man who is keeping a foot firmly in New Orleans.
Earl "Fatha" Hines' Rosetta 4:10 brings us onto disc two of American Tunes. A slower piano piece with a few moments of energy. Quiet bass fills in the tune a bit.
I have a lot of respect for Allen, and I know there is a reverence for him in NOLA, but I am underwhelmed with this album by the start of side C. I do like Rosetta 4:10, and I'll like having it for background noise, but nothing I've heard so far resembles a standout track. Come Sunday reintroduces vocals by Rhiannon Giddeon, and she continues to provide a solid performance, but the track itself just doesn't hold my attention.
Southern Nights heads Uptown. If there were a garden cafe with late afternoon performances of piano, this track would fit. Perhaps the name suggests something a little later in the evening, but it is too low tempo for me to get that sense from it.
Allen sings on American Tune, a Paul Simon piece, and it appears that this is the only track on which he sings. Without looking at the liner notes I would have guessed that this was a James Taylor song. It fits in with New Orleans, but considering that this is ostensibly a record of American music, it isn't entirely out of place in Colorado. A gut-string guitar, played by Adam Levy, backs the vocals on this track, with a late appearance of Allen's piano.
Side D matches the slower pace of Side C. Her Mind is Gone is contemplative and continues the the theme of a slow afternoon in the quarter. It is a familiar riff, though much like Allen's music overall, I can't quite place where or how I know it. Again, this is due to my own ignorance and in no way reflects the prevalence of Allen's work in the music scene of NOLA and the US altogether. It is perhaps fitting then, that this album ends with familiar chords. Moon River breaks from this, as it is instantly recognizable through the chorus, though Allen explores the space a little more past each refrain.
I took a couple of weeks to review this record. After listening through all four sides, prior to analyzing them or commenting on them, I felt underwhelmed. More specifically, I felt uninspired to write this review. Now, on a warmer day a few weeks past the snowstorm in which I listened to side A, side D leaves me with a little more reverence for Allen.
This album is not just a songbook of American tunes, it is a nod to where New Orleans fits in such a songbook. My wife has always stated that nowhere else in the US is as unique as New Orleans. To some extent, I agree with her, though I think New Orleans could not exist in any other country the way it does here in the US. That is true of this album, too. Even if you don't know who Allen is, or you are not terribly familiar with the musical themes he is presenting, this album does put you in a time and place that could only have come from NOLA.
This collection I've slowly built up over the years is not just filled with albums I picked up because I liked them. In fact, I've more often picked up a record specifically because I didn't know the artist or I recognized the artist's name and but had never heard that album. Allen's American Tunes is just such an album, and I am happy I got to spend time with it.
While I will not have this record worn flat by excessive playthrough, I will want to visit any time I want to feel that connection to NOLA . If I'm honest, I am glad to be done with this review. I did enjoy American Tunes but I am glad to move on to the next record.