Thursday, January 13, 2011

#64 Dr. John-Gris Gris


Artist: Dr. John
Album: Gris-Gris
Label: Atco
Year: 1968

By the time he released his 1968 debut album Gris-Gris, Mac Rebennack was already a seasoned veteran of the New Orleans R&B scene, having played with and learned from the greats like Fats Domino and Professor Longhair for years. His best work in the 1970s would also be a reflection of that background and upbringing, as he release some awesome albums with the help of The Meters. But his first and still greatest album, warps the New Orleans R&B vibe through an insane 1960s psychedelic looking glass. Their is no album that sounds like it, even if Dr. John's discography, and that's why it remains so unique today.
The album opens up with a tone more blues than New Orleans R&B. A single harmonica blow, followed by Dr. John's raspy voice. From then on, the album takes shape through a unique blend of hoodoo voodoo R&B goodness. The instrumentation is fascinatingly exotic.
Some albums are all about atmosphere, and this is one of them. Sure, the songs are awesome and the way they are presented is great as well, but the idea that Gris-Gris was painfully crafted in a studio over days or weeks seems absurd. It feels like we are listening to field recordings of a real-deal New Orleans get together. In "Danse Kalinda Ba Doom," it's as if when vocals and every instrument except drums drop out, it's not for a dynamic effect, but to give everyone a rest because of the energy, because they certainly must be dancing around and performing as they sing these songs. Not every song is as exotic as that one, though, and "Mama Roux" is a pretty straight ahead structure. Every song on the album builds up to one of the greatest closing tracks ever, as well, in "I Walk On Guilded Splinters." The closing track is a seven minute gem with a great melody and a haunting vibe, that goes on longer than you expect it to, with the band wringing every possible note they can out of the song.
Dr. John would make another album similar to this one (or two?), but his best work after this point would be more traditional work in the 1970s. Gris-Gris remains a one-of-a-kind album that neither John nor anyone else could hope to replicate, and that's why it's still so good all these years later.

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