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Music Review: Dr. John – Tribal

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To many, Malcolm John Rebennack, Jr., better known as Dr. John, is a legend. Born in New Orleans in 1940, he played locally throughout the 1950s, and by the 60s, living in Los Angeles, he became a well known session musician. It’s 2010 now and, still tickling the ivories, Dr. John is a man who has honed his craft over six impressive decades.

John’s newest album, Tribal, released on August 3rd, 2010, is already gaining critical acclaim. The album’s opening track, “Feel Good Music,” gives an impression of the album as a whole. Blues, funk, jazz: this album is a melting pot of musical styles.

The second track, “Lissen at Our Prayer,” is a soulful and spiritual song about the earth, about people, about creation, nature, self, and our future. At age 69, the Doctor sounds as good as ever.

“When I’m Right (I’m Wrong),” is a song about a guy who just can’t seem to catch a break with his woman, and in Track 5, “Jinky Jinx,” his bad luck seems to extend beyond his relationship and into every other aspect of his life. In fact, Dr. John’s bad luck with life and women sticks around through the next two tracks, “Change of Heart” and “Sleepin’ In My Bed.”

“Whut’s Wit Dat” could easily have been the theme song for the documentary, “Food Inc.” Dr. John sings up the evils of the big food companies, encourages us to eat fresh locally grown (or home grown) food, and we’re warned of the dangers of additives, preservatives, and sugar substitutes. As silly as it sounds, maybe we need more songs like this.

Track 9, “Tribal,” is the album’s title track. It begins with the sounds of native chanting and drums, and this becomes a recurring theme throughout the song. John tells us that the tribal plan is for every man, and sings “We don’t need feathers, and we don’t need no paint. We on a quest to see who is and who ain’t.” This song is sort of a spiritual bookend, accompanying track 2 back at the beginning of the album.

“Them” is a song about change; words of wisdom about living in harmony, and how every link in the chain must pull together to make things better. Full of nearly haunting horns, melody and backing vocals, this is one of the more memorable songs on Tribal.

“Only in Amerika” again warns us about the change we are in dire need of. This is a song about the downward spiral that America seems to be in. It touches on hunger, monetary problems, education, the breakdown of the family unit, and human rights being placed on the back burner.

Tribal showcases an impressive 16 tracks, and closes with “A Place in the Sun.” An almost hymnal sounding organ vibrates the far reaches of this tune’s soundscape, while Dr. John sings about finding the end of the rainbow and searching for the ultimate truth, while still living in the here and now.

After so many albums over so many decades, it’s amazing that John (with a little help from his superb band, The Lower 911) can still find something to say and make it feel fresh. Though not every song is spiritual or political on this album, Dr John’s words ring true throughout; “The world is a tribe. Everybody on this planet is of one tribe.” Let’s all take a lesson.

Personal Rating: 72/90 (80%)

Ratings Breakdown

1: Lyrics: 7/10
2: Significance: 9/10
3: Music: 9/10
4: Freshness: 7/10
5: Production Quality: 8/10
6: Composition: 8/10
7: Dynamic Range: 5/10
8: Humanity: 10/10
9: Cohesiveness: 9/10


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