Reviews

Dr. John's Night Tripper act -- the wild, shaman costumes, the psychedelic lyrics, the attraction to chaos that seemed such an earthy alternative to flower power on classic albums like John Gris -- is mainly for the tourists these days. It's hard to be a hoodoo witch doctor and the official poster boy of Mardi Gras, which Dr. John is this year.

Nonetheless, his marvelous voice is irresistible. The spacious, textured arrangements on Anutha Zone serve his conversational singing style well. "The good Lord knows I've made my mistakes," he sings on the title track. "But he also let me catch a few breaks." God, evil, love, voodoo religion, and the mysteries of the cosmos all figure heavily in lyrics that occasionally border on New Age hokum. "I saw the Christians shed their blood/ I saw Noah fight the ragin' flood/ And as I watched a mammoth drank/ From waters by the tundra bank" is a fairly representative bit of this pap, from "The Olive Tree." But more often, Dr. John plays it straight, and that's when he plays it best: "Hello, God. You know, it's a helluva world down here."

The guest musicians, including the Jam's Paul Weller, Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland, Supergrass, and Spiritualized, as well as members of Portishead and Primal Scream, generally behave themselves. In some cases, if it weren't for the liner notes, you'd hardly know they were there at all. Weller, for instance, is credited as a guest vocalist on "Party Hellfire," but damned if you can hear him. Spiritualized puts a more recognizable stamp on their contributions, ably paying Dr. John back for his work on last year's Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space. And Holland's Hammond organ on the album's best track, "I Don't Wanna Know," isn't flashy, but it is indispensable, rounding the edge off of bluesy guitar riffs and giving the song its mellow '70s soul.

The best word to describe Anutha Zone is one that artists who favor flash and emotion over ability and precision -- like Dr. John --would dread to hear: It sounds professional. But from the opening "Zonata" to the closing "Sweet Home New Orleans," every song is crafted, cared for, and finished. It may not be R&B traditionalist Professor Longhair, who Dr. John idolized, but, praise be to God, it ain't mid-'80s Aretha Franklin either.

-- Brian Alcorn

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