Remembering: The Subdudes – Street Symphony
They look and sound like they’ve been around forever, but at this point the Subdudes had “only” existed for 20 years (counting the roughly eight-year hiatus from 1996-2004), mainly flying under the radar. They come out of that musically rich town of New Orleans, but have rarely been mentioned in the same sentence as Dr. John, Galactic or the Neville Brothers. Efforts like Street Symphony should have gained them the wider audience they’ve earned long ago; this is one fine album. More amazingly, it’s a fine album that almost anyone can appreciate right away, and with no concessions made. To paraphrase that quote often used to explain the blues, “if this stuff doesn’t move you, you’ve got a hole in your soul.”
For you see, the Subdudes make handcrafted music. No, really, that’s not just a cliché in this case, these guys make music the old-fashioned way. There’s attention to detail in the melodies. There’s attention to detail in the lyrics. They sweat the details on the harmonies. They fuss over getting the instrumentation just right. There’s no reliance on studio trickery or trends; even their 1989 debut sounds as fresh today as it did back then.
When you are done listening to them, you feel like you’ve been fed a four-course homecooked meal, not prefabricated, processed food from (insert favorite restaurant chain you love to hate here). It’s long been a Subdudes policy to play musical instruments they can haul to the stage themselves, which is part of the reason why, for example, Steve Amedee’s “drums” are a simple tambourine set and keyboardist John Mangie totes an accordion. These things go a long way toward explaining why their sound is richly organic and timeless.
The music that results from all of this minding the details isn’t slick or overdone. It’s got the soul of Al Green, the mellow tone of The Grateful Dead, the Big Easy blues-boogie of Little Feat and the creole spirit of Clifton Chenier.
A prior, Keb Mo-produced CD Behind The Levee was first-rate as Subdudes releases tend to be, but this time, there was a greater sense of purpose. Street Symphony was the first Subdudes album written and recorded since Hurricane Katrina left a trail of devastation in their old stomping grounds, and the boys greeted this grim scene with all the emotions felt by most of the victims: anger, sadness, but also hope and faith.
The other twist in this CD was that the boys tried harder to recreate the magic of their legendary live shows in the studio. With the help of a new producer, George Massenburg (who has previously produced the likes of Little Feat, Billy Joel, Randy Newman, James Taylor and Toto), they got that feel by setting out in a circle facing each other to sharpen the chemistry. The verdict: it worked.
Subdude records usually get off to a rollicking start and this one is no exception. “Fountain Of Youth” is a vintage Isley Brothers type of deep funk, highlighted by a nasty guitar solo by Tommy Malone.
“Poor Man’s Paradise” was the advance single from the CD and it’s a real gem of a song. Its straightforward lyrics are character sketches into people who find refuge in the simple pleasures of life after their lives were torn part by Katrina. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more uplifting song derived from that tragedy and it’s sure to be a staple in the Subdudes’ live rotations for many years to come.
Malone’s sweetly soulful lead vocal supplemented by street corner harmonies. And then to top things off, they threw in a show stopping, hand-clapping chant guaranteed to get the crowd stoked:
Turn the music up some more,
Ain’t it good to be alive
This is how we get our kicks
All God’s children go to heaven
(in a poor man’s paradise…)
“Thorn In Her Side” was a stinging indictment on the Bush administration and questioned priorities of the Iraq War and Katrina relief, with hard-hitting lines like:
How about takin’ care of our own,
Like the people down south drownin’ in their homes,
I guess my God and your God don’t see eye to eye
To underscore the pain felt by Americans victimized by war and natural distasters, Malone provides some very smooth, aching slide guitar work on the fade-out. But then, Malone is a slide guitarist to be reckoned with.
“No Man” is a soulful ballad about the power of love, while “Fairweather Friend” is a country-tinged folk that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in The Band’s classic period. The gospel chant of “Brother Man” matches the topic of racial and religion division.
“Half Of The Story” is an emotional tale about getting a second chance with a beautiful, swelling chorus. And then the record turns lighthearted with a song about the narrator going fishing with his “Work Clothes” on. “Absolutely” is another love ballad, with Magnie’s accordion providing a nice, lightly romantic feel.
The Mr. Bojangles-like “I’m Your Town” constructs a vivid collage of Anytown, USA with verses like:
I’m the sound of the siren, the freight train pullin’ through,
The sweet smell of the paper, and the neighbor’s barbeque,
I’m the picture of success, the story of defeat,
I’m a single blade of grass growing up from the concrete.
“Street Symphony,” the title tune, is an organic, Philly-soul about taking comfort in of the voice of the people, from “the street.” The album wraps up with the acoustic guitar-driven country folk tune “Stranger.”
Street Symphony was one of the easiest albums of 2007 to recommend; the music snobs down to the most casual music listeners can get into this. The Subdudes’ honest, direct approach to music makes them widely appealing without dumbing it down in the least and this release was the most honest and direct effort from them yet. If you haven’t caught “the freight train pullin’ through” called the Subdudes, this is a good time to hitch a ride. You may very well never get off of it.
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