Dr. John’s new Dan Auerbach-produced album Locked Down has been hyped and hailed as a throwback record: one of those back-to-basics efforts that have been staples of nearly every music year since Rick Rubin first met Johnny Cash. But what are “the basics” when it comes to Dr. John? The New Orleans legend’s one big commercial breakthrough was with the aptly named R&B-flavored 1973 LP In The Right Place. But the rest of Dr. John’s career has been remarkably diverse, ranging from spooky swamp-rock to growly Tom Waits-esque cabaret to stripped-down piano-jazz. And over the course of the past couple of decades, Dr. John has cycled back through nearly all of those styles, never losing touch with his earthy New Orleans roots.
Auerbach has said that he wanted to make a Dr. John album in the mode of Gris-Gris, the filé-seasoned psych-rock record that Dr. John recorded under his “Night Tripper” persona in the late ’60s. But Locked Down doesn’t really bring Gris-Gris back; if anything, the album sounds like Dr. John’s similarly gritty 2010 LP Tribal, goosed by some of the cutting-edge antiquing techniques of Auerbach’s Black Keys. The Keys have been on a roll lately, though—as has Dr. John ever since Hurricane Katrina brought some attention back to New Orleans’ old guard—which is ultimately what makes Locked Down such an inspired collaboration. The album is at once classic and modern, and while it’s short on timeless songs like “Glowin’,” “Loop Garoo” and “Mos’ Scocious,” on the whole it’s a more engaged, eclectic, and ornery set than these types of revivalist projects usually are.
There are moments when Locked Down does conjure up some old ghosts, too: such as on “Revolution,” which brings together Dr. John’s pop, political, and garage sides; and “Ice Age” and “Eleggua,” both of which work in some of the African funk elements that were a major part of Dr. John’s Night Tripper era. And the album rocks consistently, whipping up some backwater racket on songs like “Getaway,” “Kingdom Of Izzness,” and “You Lie.” None of this is frozen in amber, though. If Locked Down has a mission statement, it’s embedded in the intro to “Big Shot,” which transitions from what sounds like a sample of an old Cab Calloway record to a spirited new rendition of that same style. The implication? This ain’t retro; it’s now.