Davis Rogan has a flair for the dramatic. His last album, The Once and Future DJ, was rescued from the flood before inspiring David Simon to base one of the characters in his HBO series Treme on Rogan’s life. Ever since, Davis has been walking through a dream world in which his own life intersects with and reflects a fictional character based on himself. Now it’s nearly six years later and Rogan’s follow-up album reflects this alternate reality.
He calls himself “The Real Davis” for more reasons than one, and for the first time in his life, Rogan’s teeming musical imagination has been empowered by the funds to book enough studio time to make a great album leavened by the discipline and burnished craft of a superior producer, Treme’s musical director Blake Leyh. The dilemma has also provided Davis with subject matter for one of the album’s most interesting songs, “My Every Day,” a catalog of differences between the real Davis and his fictional counterpart. “I never sacrificed chickens when I was on the radio” Davis points out. “I did play in a band with Kermit before I knew how to play,” he adds. And not to put too fine a point on it, “I know more about wine.” The song also offers a devastating piece of self-awareness from Davis when he says, “I don’t want to end up like some shit-eating Kramer.” His existential conclusion asks the question “Is it for real?” The answer: “What can I say? It’s just My Every Day.”
The album also provides us with a series of updates from Davisworld since 2006. It includes quite a travelogue, from the boogie woogie of “Austin to Destin” to the show-stopping rocker “New York,” in which Davis allows himself to be enough of a tourist to reference a Woody Allen sighting. But Davis comes to his senses to conclude “I’m going home,” where the “Fame” and success of Treme awaited him. The anthem to his sudden good fortune scans like a song from a Broadway show. Davis revels in turning tables on former adversaries, exulting in the fact that “no one has the guts to tell me I’m lame.” In his final monologue over the Harry Hardin/Mark Paradis string section, he sings plaintively, “It’s not really all about me—is it?” Can “Davis: The Musical!” be that far behind?
Davis is a morbidly ironic writer in the mold of Randy Newman, balancing sweet melodies with dark thoughts to create comic imbalance in his songs. “The New Ninth Ward” is a classic in this genre, the last word in Davis-style commentary on the early days of post-Katrina New Orleans. The sing-along pop chorus and sprightly New Orleans R&B arrangement conceal the irony of the lyric, which celebrates the “rebuilding” process east of the Industrial Canal: “I’ll meet you on Dick Cheney Street and Rumsfeld Boulevard,” Davis sings, “right next to the statue of Michael Brown.”
Most of all, The Real Davis is about the music, which Davis takes very seriously. In addition to his usual trio of Jimbo Walsh on bass and guitar and Charlie Kohlmeyer on drums, Davis gets key contributions from horn players Ben Ellman, Mike Fulton, Tony Jarvis, Craig Klein, Aurora Nealand, Ben Schenck and Efrem Towns. John Boutte adds a great vocal on “Rivers of Babylon,” sung here with the grace of a hymn. In Davis’ hands, it’s hard not to notice that the song shares its melody with the ancient folk drinking anthem, “How Dry I Am.” There’s even a straight instrumental, the beautiful piano trio piece “Fruit De Mer.”
When the album was finished, Davis wanted to do a song by his friend Alex Chilton. Before they could finish “Thirteen,” Davis heard of Chilton’s death and the song became a tribute instead of a celebration. It’s one of the few places on the album when Davis the real human being, not the master of self-referent guises, peeks out from behind the curtains.