What doesn't kill you makes you... funkier? Three years after Katrina, the Iguanas regroup for a quintessentially New Orleanean celebration of rock, jazz, R&B, Latin, and Cajun styles.
In 2005, as Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast, busted through the levies, and stranded New Orleaneans on rooftops and highway underpasses, New Orleans's Iguanas were in Massachusetts playing a show. That didn't mean they escaped the damage, though. In fact, even after they had reconnected with family members (no easy thing), the band's members faced a precarious existence in exile in towns like Houston, Austin, Memphis... anywhere but home. And for a band whose sound is so inextricably linked to the polyglot, multicultural heritage of New Orleans -- a mix of funk, soul, jazz, Latin, and zydeco -- anywhere else must have seemed particularly lonely.
As a result, you might expect If You Should Ever Fall on Hard Time, the band's first album since the Hurricane, to be kind of a downer. You would be wrong. This is an album that has its darker moments, certainly. Some of these darker moments -- "Okemah" and "Morgan City" -- are its clear highlights. But is ultimately irrepressibly, defiantly alive, a survivor who may be a little drunk and a little seedy, but is so very happy to be here.
It is also not a hurricane record. Only one of its songs -- "El Huracan Y Pin Pon" -- refers directly to the storm, in Spanish, weaving in allusions to flying to Houston and a dog named Pin Pon. Still, it's not a sad song at all, but rather a hip-shimmying slink through syncopated congas and heat-hazy, flirtatious saxophones. This is maybe the most dance-friendly track on the record, though Stax-redolent "Sour Grapes" and cha-cha jazzy "The Beep" give it a run for the money. "Malas Vibras", one of the handful of other Spanish language tracks, slips a mesmerizing organ/guitar/hand drum melee in mid-track, evoking the hard Latin soul of Santana.
The Iguanas lighten up on a couple of tracks, pushing the line between indolent groove and lite FM sounds. For me, "Pelican Bay" goes right over the edge into easy listening territory, as does the closer, "Warm Sun". "Dancing for Dollars" also feels a bit clichéd. It strives for a debauched, good time vibe, but feels forced. Are we really having a good time here? Is this really a romantic comedy about a girl with cigarette burns on her arms?
Those cuts seem trivial, but when the Iguanas dig deep, they come up with the best cuts on the record. "Okemah" is haunting and hallucinatory, its eerie sax blasts framing a story of death and memory. Guitarist Rod Hodges wrote the song about his dying father and it is full of stark, discontinuous imagery and luminous jazz-like improvisations. "Morgan City" is even better, its low sax bumping, its distorted guitars growling, a perfect fusion of bar blues and jazz and late night funk. It's worth noting that neither of these songs has an ounce of sentiment or self-pity in them. They're strong and true and unflinching.
And that, finally, is the best thing about If You Ever Should Fall on Hard Times. The best of the good-time songs have a trace of mortality in them, a whiff of dancing on the edge. And the sad ones, even better, have a bit of im-mortality, a link to people and places and memories swept away forever. But, at their best, both are celebrations of good times and sturdy, tragedy-proof musical traditions. If hard times are coming, as they seem to be, you could do a lot worse than this album.