It may be a surprise to find an explicit Katrina song on Jon Cleary’s latest album, until you realize that his last full, original studio album—Pin Your Spin in 2004—was released before the storm.
Cleary’s been through a lot in that time—for one thing, his Absolute Monster Gentlemen split up and reunited—but stylistically, this is an album that could have been made six months after its predecessor. That’s good news for those who’ve missed Cleary’s trademark mix of heavy funk and Anglified soul.
Though all three Gentlemen appear (in two cases on backing vocals only), they’re not the main bad on this album. Instead he uses a varied all-local cast (with notable names like drummer Terence Higgins, guitarist Shane Theriot, and Ivan Neville) and makes the arrangements more expansive, with horn charts and double keyboards.
The two departures both evoke the ’70s: “Step Into My Life” is an old-fashioned R&B ballad (Fender Rhodes, drumbox and all), and “Brother I’m Hungry” revisits the topicality and spacey grooves of Marvin Gaye circa “What’s Going On” (though the topic has hardly dated). But the best track here is characteristic Cleary: “Boneyard” is the happiest song you’ll ever hear about dying (or specifically, about not dying just yet); and the groove underlines the song’s message: “Before I make it to the boneyard, I’m gonna have some fun.”
If there’s a flaw here, it’s that the album tilts too heavily toward goodtime grooves. One of Cleary’s strengths as a songwriter was always his sly take on up-and-down relationships, and there’s nothing here quite as clever as “Fool’s Game,” “When You Get Back” or “Cheating On You.” (Considering the number of upbeat love songs here, he may just have less to complain about).
As for the Katrina song, it’s a good one: “Bringing Back the Home” begins as a funeral march and builds to a celebration of jazz, funk and R&B. Consider this disc one more example that the good stuff is still around.