Other Rooms, the 18th album from New Orleans-based songwriter Andy J Forest, adds another chapter to his portfolio, which he’s quietly built into one of the most impressive songwriting catalogs in the city. The prolific Forest has developed a knack for romanticizing life on the streets of his Bywater neighborhood, and he leads off here with another song in that genre, “Franklin Avenue,” about the street that marks the dividing line between the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods. The song moves merrily along with a second-line beat propelled by Kirk Joseph’s sousaphone, percussion from Pablo Leoni, Washboard Chaz and Gary S. Underwood, and a punching horn section of Ian Smith and Riccardo Gibertini on trumpets, Mike Kobrin on trombone and Jason Mingledorff and Marco Zaghi on saxophones.
“From the lawns of Gentilly / to the St. Claude flats,” sings Forest, “You can go willy nilly / put on your slipshod hats.”
The uptempo vamp “Watch Your Back” features Forest’s harmonica in a great call-and- response with the horn section. “She,” a song written for Forest’s partner Karen, also features a terrific horn arrangement. The album includes Forest’s moving tribute to longtime friends Coco Robicheaux and Kenny Holladay, who died within a month of each other last fall. Forest wrote “That Was Our Goodbye” so quickly after their passing that he was able to play it at the memorial show for Holladay at Check Point Charlie. Anders Osborne played the song with Forest that day and appears again here on the album.
I saw Kenny last Mardi Gras / at the St. Ann’s parade
My little girl gave his little girl / two confetti eggs
He took off his Moroccan fez / and bent down as he said
“Millie, do you want to break them / over your Daddy’s head?”
On the side he told me, “I’m pretty sick” / I murmured, “Yeah I heard”
“Let’s not talk about it,” he said / “around the little girl”
I shook his hand, gave him a hug / and looked him in the eye
Little did we know / that was our last goodbye
One of the most remarkable things about Forest’s career is that he’s adhered faithfully to a blues format yet found ways to grow musically within it. Most blues players describe a very small and very emotionally intense circle and stay within that over the course of their career, but Forest is continually pushing his blues frameworks into funk, traditional R&B and swing directions to accommodate his extensive lyrical wordplay. Forest has matured as both a vocalist and harp player over the years, scaling back some of his wilder eccentricities as he plays with the melodic content of his songs.
The album hangs together really well considering it was cut with different bands in three different countries. My only complaint is that it’s only nine songs long. The first time I listened to it, when the album came to the end I thought my CD player had broken. I guess Forest is working off the old show-biz adage, “leave ‘em wanting more.” These days everything is about individual tracks anyway, not album concepts, so I guess it no longer matters how many songs are on an album.