Friday, September 16, 2011

Lee Dorsey most surely can!

Earlier this year I'd went and purchased an Australian twofer of Lee Dorsey's "Yes We Can" and "Night People" album. Having devoured an Arista greatest hits that'd been languishing in my collection till the "Treme" fever was on me, I was hungry for more, and some quick online reading led me to believe "Yes We Can" would be a good choice, teaming Lee with Allen Toussaint and The Meters. The least expensive way to snag with was in this pairing with "Night People." Now, written accounts heap high praise on "Yes We Can" as an epitome of prime New Orleans funk and denigrate "Night People" as an overproduced disco sellout. And honestly I find both judgements highly misleading.

"Night People" is indeed light on patented NOLA rhythmic strategms and distinctive brand of funkiness. But rather than slick, disco what's on offer is still distinctly Southern-fried and soulful stylings, but Memphis' variants ala vintage Al Green. Lee of course acquits himself admirably as ever in the vocal department. And backing musicians include the Queen of New Orleans soul Irma Thomas on backing vocals and idiosyncratic keyboard wizard James Booker. You can hear an awareness of disco convention on "Night People" but Toussaint's strategy is more to focus on the immediate precursors to disco rather than employ the robotic beats, glossy orchestral arrangements etc. So you sense he was making overtures to the market without submitting to disco orthodoxy per se.

"Yes We Can" is a still more perplexing project. Coz, rather than the streamlined yet straightahead funk work-outs of Dorsey's hit singles Toussaint had written and produced he and the Meters created an album of unabashed art music - based in funk and other New Orleans tradition but taking it into very ambitious and, I daresay, visionary directions. The title song kicks things off merely with lethal funkitude -- establishing the mastery of the genre by those involved. And then with "Riverboat" they take it off into the great beyond. Syncopations here don't just limn out a hip shaking beat, they expand, convolute, turn in on themselves and then out again, directing the overall architecture of most songs' composition out into demanding and exotic shapes. It's not for nothing that Van Dyke Parks covered this song as well as "Occapella" on his uber-arty homage to indigenous American eccentricity - "Discover America."

Finally, "Yes We Can" emerges as one of the great American art music records right up there a "Pet Sounds" "Oar" or "Sister Lovers" only funk based.

And here's a quick list of funky art music
Shuggie Otis "Freedom Suite"
D'Angeleo "Voodoo"
Terrence Trent Darby "Neither Fish Nor Flesh" (and big hunks of everything he released afterwards)
and y'all know 'bout Prince...tho I will state that any of his albums - listened to 10 years after their initial release (and thus all media brouhaha and personal expectations have burned off) sound mighty fine.

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