New Orleans has long been a city shrouded in a murky air of mythical decadence. From its sinking foundations and swampy surroundings to the jazz and voodoo fables of debauchery, the city itself has become an iconic figure of a darkened underbelly to modern life, where Southern Gothic and Creole verve collide in an abstract notion of the Big Easy.
Of course, that image has been exploited and commodified by those who would profit from this allure, and a combination of Girls Gone Wild imagery and tourist traps along the French Quarter have crystallized an image of New Orleans as a mini Las Vegas. The venerable traditions of Mardi Gras have become as much an outsider's version of Spring Break as they have remained an honoring of the local paraders and their social clubs, much less a religious festival. But for New Orleans band Morning 40 Federation, the authentic city still exists off the tourist-beaten paths, along the alleyways and barfronts of the 9th Ward, and it still survives in a laissez faire lifestyle that best expresses itself through the muses of drink and song.
Taking their name from a probably mythical pledge to drink 40 oz. of malt liquor first thing each morning (before even brushing your teeth or taking a leak), the band has been steadily crafting a following in the New Orleans scene by equally exploiting and celebrating the excess of the city's legend, but for the sake of living the life rather than turning a profit on it. Coming together first as drinking buddies, this group of disparate individuals from different locales actually did drunkenly stumble on the idea of forming a band, despite the fact that they weren't actually musicians. Their band practices were also their performances, the band taking the stage and working through songs about drinking, food, sex, and their artistic community right there during the show. While it took time to become a solid unit, the band's free-wheeling attitude appealed to the locals who saw the reflection of their own community in the act, and the band's open-stage policies turned their shows into block parties as much as concerts, with actors and puppeteers and buskers joining Morning 40 on stage variously for every show. Think Crash Worship with voodoo replacing aggro-paganism.
As the band's reputation spread, their abilities as musicians grew, and eventually they were touring the country, opening for national acts like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Modest Mouse, and even playing the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Local press, including the Times-Picayune, included their first two self-produced CDs (2000's Your My Brother and 2002's Trick Nasty) on their annual "Best of" lists. And so their mystique has grown.
It's a great backstory -- it's a really great backstory; the kind of thing legends are made of. But the release of Morning 40 Federation for wide distribution asks us to consider only the band's music. For the audience playing along at home, those that don't have the opportunity to attend one of these orgiastic live performances, the question is simply: "What does it sound like? Is it any good?"
Citing influences from New Orleans' own King Oliver, along with Tom Waits and Jon Spencer, and combining rock, jazz, ska, and funk, Morning 40 Federation's sound is a blender of styles that whips up a frozen Hurricane. The guitars are fuzzy and rough, the beats swing, and the vocals are exaggerated whether they're aiming for inebriation or a gritty bluesman affectation. Fans have labeled the style "sleazy burlesque", and it's an entirely appropriate designation, conjuring up images of the Moulin Rouge and lascivious bacchanals. And while there's a sort of indie cum jam band feel to the compositions, everything comes off with a determined lack of seriousness. While Morning 40 never shies away from silliness, it's just tongue-in-cheek enough to stay fun and not drift too far into the ridiculous. It's as though Modern Drunkard Magazine had hired a house band.
On the other hand, Morning 40 on disc still comes across as something of a novelty act. Knowing something about the band and its context makes it easier to appreciate what you get in their music, but pulled out of that New Orleans milieu, the band will probably strike unknowing listeners as some kind of bizarre caricature.
Things start off easily enough, with "Intro" providing a declaration of purpose for Morning 40's "stay drunk" aesthetic. But "Gotta Nickle" kicks things into high gear quickly, and in a way that's almost uncharacteristic of the rest of the album. Dirty blues rock guitar chords and a simple rock beat propel the song, and the processed vocals are screamed until the breakdown bridge, which hits a funky electro vibe, and then jumps back into a rock mode that suggests Morning 40 is trying to hit a punk note. "Headlamp" continues this with a garage feel and consequently seems like a throwaway.
But by the fourth track, "Bottom Shelf Blues", Morning 40 Federation settles into its boozy party haze. Tracks like "Stinky" and "Nuts" throw out crude bodily humor over catchy melodies and compete with the blissfully shambolic wastrel tunes like "9th Ward", "One in the Bottle", "That Ain't Professional", and "Sorry Mom". Just to show that they've developed some decent rock chops as well, tracks like the ragtime "Jimmy Cousins" and the funky stomp "Frenchy" provide some high points for escaping piss drunk repetition.
There's something inexplicably charming about these songs, because they seem to come from some strange place where gracelessly misbehaving is the purest virtue. Yet it's hard to really see where Morning 40 Federation fits into a music scene outside of New Orleans. Are there really people looking for a jam-rock-zydeco-jazz-funk combo in the frozen North or the hardened North? Maybe if the band could find some way to bring its whole 9th Ward community on the road with it and turn it into some kind of touring carnival...
In the end, Morning 40 Federation may simply remain one of New Orleans's particularly unique features. But if that's the case, then this disc (and the history behind the act) make a case for Morning 40 to be one of the city's better draws, an attraction less tainted by the crowds of tourists -- one where you can lose yourself in the bottle with carefree abandon and not worry much about it at all.