New Orleans native Paul Sanchez wanted to write and perform his own songs, so he went to New York City, where he became part of the “anti-folk” acoustic music scene in lower Manhattan during the 1980s. It was a short period of his career, but it defined what he wanted to do as a musician. The bulk of his career, though, has been in New Orleans, where he originally worked with the Backbeats, then after his return to the city in 1990 with Cowboy Mouth. Both of those bands included Fred LeBlanc, whose larger-than-life stage presence overpowered the laconic Sanchez. Even though Sanchez wrote several of Cowboy Mouth’s signature songs, including “Hurricane Party,” LeBlanc always overshadowed Sanchez.
Meanwhile, Sanchez was working with one of New Orleans’ most creative and eccentric singer-songwriters, John Boutte, co-writing Boutte’s “At the Foot of Canal Street” and including Boutte in the mix on the last Cowboy Mouth album. These two new albums represent a turning point in Sanchez’ career, the first of his solo albums that really lives up to his aspirations as a songwriter and a truly collaborative effort with Boutte that finally gives this outstanding vocalist a setting that allows him to display the breadth of his talent.
Dave Pirner produced both records, and the Soul Asylum front man’s pop instincts took over magnificently. The genius of selecting Pirner is immediately apparent on “Door Poppin’,” a song co-written by Sanchez, Boutte and Vance Vaucresson which opens both albums. Sanchez comes off as an easy swinging roots rocker in his version, which provides a relaxed setting for his burnt orange vocal. Boutte, who possesses one of the greatest voices in American music, an instrument on a par with Aaron Neville’s, delivers a powerful performance on his album opener, which gets an uptempo, New Orleans street shuffle backing track.
The Sanchez record moves effortlessly through its paces, from the wonderful Matt Perrine tuba track lines on the title track to the vocal collaboration with Fredy Omar on “Adios San Pedro,” the glorious 1960s-style harmony with Susan Cowsill on “Sedation,” the terrific love song “For the Rest of My Life” and the pure pop songwriting of “Up to Me,” a song Nick Lowe would have been proud to write. “Johnny and his June,” written with his wife Shelly and Mary Lasseigne, shows Sanchez at his anecdotal best in a tribute to Johnny Cash and June Carter. Sanchez has made the record of his life here, an album that shows off his writing skills, singing ability and overall musical versatility. The record balances New Orleans street music, singer/songwriter introspection and rock ’n’ roll eclecticism with the grace of a cocktail waitress balancing a trayful of martinis at happy hour.
Boutte’s excellent album pales only slightly by comparison, perhaps because it feels like it could be the prelude to even greater things. As it stands, it’s a high quality combination of songwriting, featuring seven songs co-written by Boutte and Sanchez including a show-stopping remake of “At the Foot of Canal Street.” Boutte shows how inventive an interpreter he is on a cover of the Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen classic “Accentuate the Positive,” but the cover of Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” so powerful in his live performances, seems too restrained here. Boutte summoned up hair raisingly righteous anger when he delivered this condemnation of slavery at Jazz Fest 2006, right before the notorious performance of “Louisiana 1927” that became a turning point in his career. The power of Boutte’s performance trumped Lynyrd Skynyrd’s answer song to Young, “Sweet Home Alabama,” and it’s hard to listen to this reading without missing that awesome context. But why quibble with a record that also includes the lively romp of “Cutting Heads,” the Mexicano lilt of “Sisters” and Boutte’s own New Orleans R&B classic “Broke Down the Door/The Treme Song,” a nifty variation on “Hey Pocky Way” that you will be hearing constantly on WWOZ in the near future.