It is widely known and nearly universally agreed by fans of New Orleans music that Troy Andrews, known as Trombone Shorty, is the most gifted crescent city musician of his generation and a promising beacon in a musical lineage as thick as the roux that has flavored its rich tradition. On his debut solo cd, Backatown, on Verve Records, he embraces the uncertain challenge of trying to sell himself (and his well-honed, funky-ass band – only a few holiday dinners removed from the kids’ table) to a mainstream audience with no grasp of his deep roots or prodigal talent, while remaining true to both. In practical terms, this means short tunes, no extended solos and radio-friendly production techniques, when a live-in-the-studio-jamin’-like-its-jazzfest concept would have played to his strengths and satiated his established fanbase.The choice of Ben Ellman as the producer in this effort was a critical step towards fulfilling this ambition. They have played on many stages together, and with the last two Galactic outings and his Gypsyphonic Disko mix-tape, Ben has proclaimed himself an ardent and imaginitive producer committed to finding an authoritative voice for New Orleans musicans in the American pop music discourse so often a dysfunctional talkfest between the deaf and dumb.
Backatown opens with “Hurricane Season,” the first of many scorching instrumental tracks, with all of the horn-driven excitement of a brass band shout chorus over a thunderous bass line and swanky NOLA-phonic backbeat that would light up Frenchman street any night of the week. Next, Allen Toussaint knuckles some piano on a tune he wrote, “On Your Way Down” – a sweet, laconic, bubbly groove with some simple, tasty harmonic movement and the amusing refrain: “well, it’s high time that you found, the same people you walk on, on the way up, you might meet on your way down.” For the most part, the cd alternates dutifully between instrumental and vocal tracks. Shorty is joined on vocals by guests Lenny Kravitz on “Something Beautiful” and Marc Broussard on “Right To Complain”. All of the tunes are powered by a supafunky, in-ya-face rhythm section dripping with in-the-pocket, ballsy, contrapuntal horn lines – this is not your daddy’s Verve Records release, but the confidence, craftsmanship and relentless badassness on display throughout stands with the best of that historic catalog.
Sonically, Backatown is as radio-friendly a rock album as anything you’ll hear with your FM dial tuned between 101 and 107. This is no 2:1 affair; the drums, bass and guitars are compressed and mixed with the intention of putting the listener back on his/her heals. Despite the heavy production, the groove never loses it’s live feel even when the drums are gated and processed to sound like a drum machine. The horn production is bombastic and fantastic. Forget blending in – they leave me wondering how it is possible that the power of a horn section has not been on the forefront of the hard rock sound for the last 20 years. Finally, the vocal production does not suffer from being an after thought on a great instrumental record. Many of the standard rock/pop vocal production techniques are here, with the thankful exception of the pandemic “really? I mean really!?!” Melodyne effect. Some soulful phrasing and well-mixed doubling sell me on Shorty as a vocalist. Everything to do with production on this cd seems intent on kicking ass – and does it with conviction. Once again, Ben Ellman shows himself as uniquely able to produce contemporary New Orleans funk within the mainstream rock aesthetic without coming up short on either end.
In today’s homoginized, temporal culture, a generation of musicians in New Orleans including Trombone Shorty, Galactic, Dumpstaphunk, and the Rebirth Brass Band are branching off a deep-rooted tradition, with the hard-earned respect of those that came before them, and reasserting the city’s important influence on the American musical landscape. No one represents the depth of that tradition or the urgency of that cultural promise more than Trombone Shorty. On his debut solo cd, we are introduced to an artist who’s vision is fueled by a youthful, vibrant exuberance and tempered by tremendous maturity, clarity and confidence. This recording succeeds in bringing Trombone Shorty to a mainstream audience without alienating or disappointing his existing fanbase who for years have been eagerly following his performances during jazzfest and packing Orleans Avenue shows around the country. Deep funk astronomers will herald this disk as the birth of new a rock star. And without a doubt it will be part of the constellation that guides my bbq this summer! Buy it on Amazon