On For True, his second album for a major record label, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews comes across as the Tremé neighborhood’s Lenny Kravitz. He enjoys multi-tracking the shit out of his bad self, and he looks amazing in giant sunglasses and a tank top. Kravitz even plays bass with Andrews on “Roses”, which sounds exactly like a Lenny Kravitz tune. (Who knew bass technique was the guy’s most salient musical feature?) Another Kravitz konnection: out of 14 original songs, there’s not an interesting lyric in the bunch, but that’s hardly the point.
No, the point is the musical approach. Both Kravitz and Andrews tighten up musical influences prone to loose rambling. Kravitz turns peace-and-love psychedelia into succinct soul rock tunes for dad-rock radio, and Andrews is starting to do the same with New Orleans brass band music. First single “Do To Me” — one of the best songs here — features some stellar rock bounce from Andrews’s band Orleans Avenue, along with Jeff Beck playing a recorded-at-home guitar solo. Andrews sings his placeholder sex lyrics with Kravitz-y cool and overdubbed high harmonies, screeching a big old “YEEOWWWWW!!!” at the end. “Do To Me” is, as they say, “Still Impacting” at Triple A stations, and it’d be just another above-average boogie if Andrews’s trombone solo didn’t set it apart from the pack.
Andrews’s horns sound clear and focused throughout — his solos are driven by rhythm and effects more than melody, a fine way to go for a 16-bar solo. Andrews has also realized a profound musical truth: every song sounds better with a baritone sax part. Granted, Dan Oestreicher is often mixed so low you can barely tell he’s there, but when he gets to show off — say, on the two short “Lagniappe” instrumentals, which are just trombone, bari, and tenor sax playing contrapuntal lines over Stanton Moore’s strutting drums — the man can really honk.
As talented as Andrews and his band are, though, you can’t help but get the feeling that this album is consciously reigning them in. Everything’s very straightforward, concise and competent — well, except for the boring Ledisi feature near the end — but once these grooves get going, it’d be nice to hear what Orleans Avenue could do with them. The jazz-funk instrumentals are all the shortest tunes here, clocking under three minutes apiece, and they often feel like they only just got started before someone — producer Ben Ellman? Trombone Shorty himself? — pulled the plug.
For True is also festooned with guest stars, like a Santana album or an episode of 30 Rock. They do glitz things up — Kid Rock raps a charmingly Kid Rock-like rap (also recorded elsewhere), Ivan Neville’s clavinet burbles and stings, and Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes adds smoke to “Encore”. The best is Crescent City rapper 5th Ward Weebie, whose barely-intelligible “Buckjump” vocal is a litany of tense staccato syncopation, in the tradition of Don Boyce’s “Jungle Boogie” barks for Kool and the Gang.
While Andrews’s New Orleans element is inescapable, it seems like just one more thing this up-and-coming pop star does, the idiosyncrasy that makes him stand out. (That’s on record, anyway — his live shows are reportedly awesome). So, good for Trombone Shorty — he wants to write succinct pop songs, and he does a fine, workmanlike job of it. But the 2011 album this most resembles is funk-rock guitarist Dennis Coffey’s self-titled comeback album — a bunch of pretty good soul workouts with lots of guests, some filler, and just enough personality to get by. The Big Easy rock of For True also sounds a bit like Harry Connick, Jr.’s godawful concept album Star Turtle. For truthfully, it’s better than both. If that’s not a ringing endorsement, it’s just because Trombone Shorty is capable of more.