Dr. John was definitely in the right place at the right time when he agreed to let the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach produce his new album, “Locked Down,” one of the giddiest experiences a serious rock fan could have this spring.
By “right place,” we don’t necessarily mean Bourbon Street. If you’re thinking this will be “a New Orleans album” in any of the usual senses — even in any of the usual Dr. John senses — you might be disappointed. The artist lesser known as Mac Rebennack doesn’t play acoustic piano on the album (or if he does, it’s virtually subliminal). So don’t expect a second of that distinct Tipitina vibe.
And by “right time,” we don’t necessarily mean 2012. Because “Locked Down” could almost be mistaken for a newly discovered set of outtakes recorded between the good doc’s first two LPs in the late ‘60s. There’s a distant, low-fi aspect to certain parts of the mix that almost sounds as if it was recorded off an AM radio with a primitive cassette player, but then Auerbach is always using the stereo separation to play with the electric guitars and make them dance around Dr. John’s electric piano and farfisa.
That’s right, ‘60s nuts: farfisa (albeit only for one solo)! But suffice it to say that if you love mid-‘60s rock, even if Dr. John isn’t usually your thing, you’ll get a huge kick out of the way this album evokes that era and style of recording. Almost any of the arrangements would have been right at home on the Woodstock stage.
When the music does suggest something particularly contemporary, you might have to stop to think about what it is before realizing that the sound of the baritone saxes recalls the tracks Amy Winehouse made with Mark Ronson… and they, of course, were borrowing their cues from the same eras, without actually having played through them the first time, the way this 71-year-old great has.
Dr. John clearly has some social commentary on his mind, although a lot of his musings get a little lost in the grooves. He sounds like a grandfatherly Gil-Scott Heron when he sings about “lepers in a desperate hour,” compares the CIA to the KKK, and wonders, “Did we lose our constitution?” A lot of that is packed into a tune called “Revolution,” which splits the difference between Heron’s bold lyrical themes and the moodier arrangements favored by a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins or Tom Waits.
Lest things stay in too enjoyably dark, the voodoo-esque “Ellegua” near the end of the album is followed by rays of light in the form of “My Children, My Angels,” obviously a heartfelt song for Dr. John’s children, and the closing “God’s Been Good,” an ebullient spiritual guaranteed not to sound quite like any gospel number you’ve heard before.
The whole album rides that wonderful cusp between blatant and mysterious, and between treating Dr. John as your friendly, wizened uncle and an inscrutable shaman. In other words, it’s totally New Orleans-ian, even though it’s too rich to get dismissed under the N.O. tag. It’s spooky dance music for those of us who need a trip to 1967 just as much as we needed one to Louisiana.