Sharps & Flats

New Orleans boogie king Dr. John botches an album of standards. Duke Ellington would not be amused.

Published January 28, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

"Duke Elegant" begins with a slowly roiling blues riff set beneath one of the more distinctive voices in popular music. "You know this might look like a slum to some," murmurs Dr. John. "They think it's the seamy side/But to me, it's the dreamy side/The peach and creamy side." It sounds like one of his signature riffs, an infatuation with the sort of gorgeous underbelly that exists everywhere in his hometown New Orleans. In fact, "On the Wrong Side of the Railroad Tracks" is one of three Duke Ellington rarities the good Doctor, ne Mac Rebennack, uncovered for this 12-song tribute. "On the Wrong Side" was written for a World War II-era play that was never performed. Dr. John's jaunty version gives it a delectable, unfurling guitar solo by Bobby Broom and gentle organ lines.

But while Dr. John recently had some success putting his imprint on any number of musicians and musical genres -- he taught a crop of young British rockers how to boogie N'awlins-style on "Anutha Zone" (1998) -- his takes on well-traveled classics like "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" and "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" are cheesy.

Dr. John has a great voice, but he doesn't have a pretty voice. Gruff and funky, ribald and fiery, his cords just aren't suited to more traditionally beautiful numbers. It's no surprise, then, that "Solitude" just sounds schlocky. And "Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me" plays like it wants to be mood music for the next Nora Ephron film. It's the sound of a man out of his league. The instrumentation across the whole album doesn't help matters either. Ronnie Cuber's opening sax bleats on "Perdido" sound as if they were lifted straight from Muzak's greatest hits; the rest of the song, from the predictable organ lines to the tepid bass grooves, is equally noxious.

Even the rarities can't save this effort. "I'm Gonna Go Fishin'" -- originally the theme of Ellington's soundtrack to Otto Preminger's "Anatomy of a Murder," and later given lyrics by Peggy Lee -- never captures the appealing insouciance of "On the Wrong Side." Broom sounds like he's auditioning for the role of Eddie Van Halen in "Van Halen: The Musical." And the backup chorus -- "Fishin', fishin' yeah!" -- is enough to make you wince.

"Mood Indigo" fares a little better, providing Dr. John with the kind of knowing, drawn-out lyrical stylings he can work with. It helps, also, that "Mood Indigo" is infused with a slow-roasting funk that the master can get his voice around. And at the last moment, just before the album fades away, Dr. John almost saves the record. "Flaming Sword," a rarely heard calypso instrumental, proves that John can still cook with fire when he chooses the right ingredients, but by that time, the burner's already off.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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