The music of Lyrics Born (the stage name of Tsutomu Shimura) has always had its funky street party side and its word-acrobatics side. As his music has diversified, digging through more of a variety of musical styles on his third album As U Were (2010), he has taken on the mission of balancing those two distinctive sides to his style. His fourth album, Real People, explodes into Sly and the Family Stone territory as it opens, but Born pairs that with a reflection on the complexity of life that fits the musical terrain. He puts an optimistic, even thankful spin on the messier side of life, on divorce and complicated relationships and the hardships of families getting by, while the hook proclaims, in a group singalong, “real people do real things… real people live real lives.”
That song and the next make it seem like the album is going for heartwrenching material within a party atmosphere. “Chest Wide Open” has a hook that seems to exemplify this: “She ripped my chest wide open.” This is sung by David Shaw of the New Orleans group the Revivalists—more on New Orleans in a moment. The last verse of the song is when we realize how cartoonish it is getting. Our protagonist is at a bar with his chest-ripping lady. She goes to the ladies’ bathroom, he waits a few minutes and goes to the men’s bathroom, and finds her in the stall next to his, getting it on with another man.
That verse points towards a more pervasive personality of the album: novelty songs. It’s not quite Dr. Demento material, but it’s headed in that direction. There’s the corniness of “Sir Racha”’s refrain, the overt swing angle of “Rock-Rock-Away”, the moments where he rhymes in Twitter hashtags. But even more so, there are songs like “Holy Matrimony”, where he gets married and has to deal with his crazy mother-in-law, or the rhyming name game of telephone of “In Confidence”.
What Real People is really about is performance, putting on a show. The reason for the lightweight rhymes delivered masterfully or the goofy plotlines of songs is that our focus should be on the showmanship, of Lyrics Born and the musicians supporting him. This record was recorded in New Orleans, with members of Galactic and some other local talents: the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Trombone Shorty, and members of Dumpstaphunk and Rebirth Jazz Band. In addition to its guests, the album boasts a mix of African-American musical styles indicative of that city’s heady musical brew.
Lyrics Born himself switches up his vocal styles, and the content of his songs, to match. He does blues boasting (“Mr. D.I.L.L.I.G.A.F.”), he does jazz scatting (“That’s It!”), he does straight-up feel-good party jams (“2nd Act”). He hints at some rock ‘n’ roll badness (“All Hail the Queen”). The more you listen to the album, the more Lyrics Born’s swagger becomes in tune with the city’s swagger and its musical heritage. What at first might seem lightweight gets deeper when you listen through the lens of the city. Listen again to “Holy Matrimony”, for example; yes, “you, me and your crazy-ass mama” sounds like a sitcom plot, but when you listen to that opening singalong and the call-and-response vocals, you hear history.
Real People feels like a party, one that feels like an act with both historical weight and immediacy. One of the songs that lingers longest is the quietest one, “Around the Bend”, where Born deliberately turns down the volume for a night in the city that’s mostly tender but also humorous and “real”, in the sense that people have real quirks and flaws. “Around the Bend” is a love song, but one that reflects the city of its creation. The whole album is just like that: an exercise in passion that carries with it the weight of a city’s heritage and atmosphere.
// Notes from the Road
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