Back in the 1950s through the early ’70s New Orleans was known as much for songwriting as for its great music. Perhaps because the city lacked the music industry infrastructure to nurture songwriters, that reputation subsequently waned, but in recent years New Orleans has become a songwriters’ haven. Alex McMurray is one of the prime movers of that renaissance, turning out a torrent of original material as both a solo singer-songwriter and a member of numerous local groups. McMurray’s songs are pretty wide-ranging content-wise, but few people have written as tellingly about New Orleans over the last two decades. McMurray’s New Orleans songs capture the wistful, carefree nature of the city with a wry attention to detail and an acute sense of the absurdity that surrounds many of the stories emanating from its peculiar denizens.
Now we have a collection of McMurray’s New Orleans tales, culled from various albums with Royal Fingerbowl, the Tin Men and under his own name, as well as one new song.
The oldest of these songs are at the beginning of the record, three tracks pulled from Royal Fingerbowl’s 1997 debut, Happy Birthday, Sabo! The tales cover a neo-bohemian lifestyle that has become a cliché 20 years later, annotating the carefree woes of a party animal with “Nothing But Time,” a man who hasn’t “had a dollar since Mardi Gras day.”
“The Rosy Fingered Dawn,” a song about the regret and ecstasy accompanying an all-nighter that builds to a powerful crescendo and includes the Dylan-esque line “I’m stuck behind a semi on Soniat Street.”
You can imagine some growth in McMurray’s songwriting but the key to his talent is his gift for storytelling, which continues to unfold in the three Tin Men selections. “Turn My Lights Back On,” from 2013’s Avocado Woo Woo, tells of an Entergy lineman who blacks out an entire neighborhood to get revenge on his girlfriend. “If You Can’t Make It Here” has become something of an anthem for the desperate characters depicted in the RF songs, a true song of New Orleans: “If you can’t make it here/ You’d better not leave.”
On “Our Kind of Rain,” from McMurray’s 2003 release Banjaxed, his voice has matured, clear of the rasp of the RF days, which is perfect for delivering such great lines as “Man it ain’t no fun stealin’ for one at the Circle K.” For “The Day After Mardi Gras Day,” from the same album, McMurray recruits a brass band including Perrine, Rick Trolsen on trombone, Joe Cabral on saxophone and Duke Heitger on trumpet to play some ill-sounding accompaniment to his bittersweet reminiscence.
“You’ve Got To Be Crazy To Live in This Town,” from the 2009 release How To Be a Cannonball, is another of McMurray’s backhand tributes to New Orleans. On the same album is “Where K-Doe Lives,” one of his greatest compositions. Like a lot of his Ninth Ward neighbors, McMurray became friends with Ernie K-Doe in his latter days and this tribute captures the mysterious inspiration that this master of New Orleans vibe gave to everyone in his orbit. This track is also notable for an unforgettable tenor saxophone solo from the late, great Tim Green.
You say you don’t need this record because you have all the albums? Well, think again because “Ninth Ward Chickens,” a heavy metal track recorded with Morning 40 Federation, is worth the price of admission alone.
The album closes with the beautiful “Land of Dreams” from the Paul Sanchez 2011 release Reclamation of the Pie-Eyed Piper.