Dr. John: Locked Down

When you read press claiming this is the best album Dr. John has done in years, or among the best in his career, be skeptical.

Dr. John

Locked Down

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2012-04-03
UK Release Date: 2012-04-02

The cover art and publicity around Dr. John’s new album Locked Down hearken back to the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when, after a decade as a session musician (playing guitar first, switching to piano only after injuring his hand), Mac Rebennack on a lark became Dr John the Night Tripper, a voodoo mystic chronicling the strange things that go bump after dark. Those first Dr. John albums -- Gris Gris (1968), Babylon (1969), Remedies (1970) and The Sun, Moon and Herbs (1971) – are strange masterpieces, and still sound strange today.

Listening to Locked Down, though, doesn’t necessarily take you back that far. Produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, the album does offer a heady funk-soul mix, though one that feels more like a transaction consciously built to be an “event”, less like conjuring spirits or letting creative juices freely flow than those early albums did. Locked Down doesn’t feel as free as those. And sometimes – though he collaborated from the start on these songs with the young musicians he’s playing with – it feels like he’s being put in a particular place to play a particular part, with a particular end in mind.

The songs themselves are not that different, in sentiment or structure, from those on his fine recent albums – 2010’s Tribal, especially – but they’re wearing different clothes, ones reflecting the backgrounds of the other musicians involved as much as that of Rebennack. For example, it takes only until the second track for the album to have some of that Daptone Records retro-soul style about it. Whether that comes from bassist Nick Movshon (who’s played with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Amy Winehouse and others), the horn arrangements from Leon Michels (El Michels Affair), the Black Keys presence or a combination of that and more, I can’t say entirely, but it’s clear that while this is a Dr. John album, it’s also something else.

When you read press claiming this is the best album Dr. John has done in years, or among the best in his career, be skeptical. Go back and listen to his previous albums. Listen to all of them, and see how this stacks up. Locked Down feels a little too mannered, or manipulative even, to be among his best. Still, that doesn’t mean this isn’t a great album. Dr. John is Dr. John. He’s a star, and is on fire at the center of this. Limiting his sentimental and didactic sides, and taking him out of his New Orleans comfort zone for a minute, the albums puts an emphasis on Dr. John as a funk and soul god, and I’m not about to argue that he isn’t one.

Locked Down shows off his swagger especially well, like on “Big Shot”, a cocky anthem that stands out, within the album and among his recent work. There are some vague but still potent conspiracy-theory/rebel lyrics about the government, in line with his other post-Katrina albums, and, within this dense musical stew, the paranoia and the urgency comes out. Mostly, though, the songs go for coolness above all else. And cool is something Dr. John pulls off with ease, carrying himself as hipper at age 71 than a borough’s worth of hipsters. He also always manages to sound both menacing and neighborly at the same time. The tenderness in his music is more absent on Locked Down than on most of his albums, at least until the album’s end, on the last two songs: “My Children, My Angels” and “God’s Sure Good”. Yet even “My Children, My Angels” isn’t as tender as the song seems to merit, as the band goes for a smoke-thick atmosphere that just about smothers the lyrics away.

Ultimately it is nice to hear a living legend treated like the still-vibrant artist that he is. Worse than this would have been the standard Grammy-baiting pedestal treatment, where guest artists are trotted out to bring coolness by association to a pre-retirement legend. At the same time, Locked Down, partly because of the publicity ambush, does feel like a trying-too-hard attempt to revitalize the career of a musician who, to some of us, already seemed vital. Then again, if this gets young people to go back through Dr. John’s catalogue and really listen to it, I’m all for it.


This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.