Dr. John

Released 1968 on ATCO
Reviewed by Vox Phantom, 01/06/2000ce

Forget the tame Cajun pianist you know; one look at the swirling smoke of this record’s eerie cover and you know this is a different, more intense Dr. John. The cover gives a good feel for where this album is coming from. This is Cajun music re-cast as swampy hallucinogenic voodoo psychedelia. There’s a spooky, almost sinister feeling to much of the record, somehow capturing the fear of following the medicine man on his shamanic trip. A lot of this is due to the production, which echoes with a reverb cut with smoke. Backing vocals float in as if from the depths of a forest, while the Doctor mumbles and groans in the foreground boasting of his powers either to impress or scare off the meek. The first track, "Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya-Ya," is essentially an introduction to the Doctor. The following track, "Danse Kalinda Ba Doom" is an odd dance piece, with the title repeated over and over by the distant female voices while homemade drums pound under almost baroque mandolin, guitar and flute. "Mama Roux" is a more standard Cajun tune, but the humid production takes it into another realm. It’s soulful, though a fairly fluffy song in any other setting. Once again the hero of the track is a medicine woman, less spooky than the Doctor’s character, she comes across as a local hero. "Danse Fambeaux" re-visits the baroque dance sounds, with a sneaky mandolin lead and a distant crowd of onlookers providing trancey background vocals. "Croker Courtbullion" takes the baroque sounds further, even adding harpsichord to ghostly tribal dance music. Disembodied voices float in and out, as do snaky guitar leads, flutes, clarinet riffs and clattering percussion. Through the haze come hissing, croaking sounds of a bayou full of life. It all has the feeling of an uneasy journey, a nighttime boatride into the unknown. "Jump Sturdy," like "Mama Roux" lightens the tone and again seems to celebrate a powerful if sinister woman who "raised her hand and created an electrical storm." The vocals are less spooky, though the Doctor is still a babbling mumbling presence. Here, however, he is full of life and energy, like a cantankerous old drunk who has suddenly remembered his favorite story. It as if these moments of light are designed to drag you further into the trip, though, as the next and final track is the heaviest and spookiest track of all. "Walk on Gilded Splinters" is even more expositon on the Doctor’s shamanic persona, and paints a picture of the powerful and haunted man driven to damn those who cross him while he wanders the earth poisoning himself waiting until the killer on his trail catches up with him. He is the "Grand Zombie," and it sounds like it. This track has the swampiest sound of all, as well. An incessant bass groove is pushed along by congas and finger snaps and syncopated guitar chords. The only thing which interrupts the trance is a clarinet lead, which only serves to add a more spectral feel to the lurching march. The call and response of the backing vocals seem to trail off for miles, as if his words are being transmitted through the swamp one person at a time. There’s nothing else that sounds quite like this record; maybe it was a trip that could only be taken once.

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