Ever since they covered a Kinks song (granted, a Kinks song already steeped in New Orleans jazz) on ’07s Hurricane Sessions collection, it’s been clear that the Preservation Hall Jazz Band was ready to go outside the traditional box. But not too far outside, and the venerable group maintained a tricky balancing act over the past few years—raising its profile to an all-time high with a string of unlikely collaborations, but still basing its repertoire on the time-honored tunes.
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Marking their return to a major label, That’s It! is their boldest step yet, and arguably the first to show second-generation leader Ben Jaffe’s vision for the group. For the first time, all the songs are new originals (though some of the titles—“Yellow Moon,” “I Think I Love You”—may sound familiar). One of their highest-profile supporters, My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James, steps in to co-produce with Jaffe. It doesn’t sound rock, but it does sound modern: Though it was recorded at the Hall the instruments are sharply defined, without the room ambiance usually heard on PHJB’s studio albums. And while Jaffe has made the recent albums more tune and less solo-oriented, the concise song lengths here—more than half under four minutes—would’ve been unheard-of in the old PHJB.
The real news is the quality of the material (all written or co-written by Jaffe, save for one solo Clint Maedgen composition), which doesn’t have any trad slavishness about it. The title track opens the album with rumbling tom-toms and blasts of horns; it wouldn’t take much to make this a great surf instrumental. “I Think I Love You” sports a cool touch of Bacharach; “Yellow Moon” starts out old-timey (with the disc’s only prominent banjo) but turns into an elegant samba. The campy horror-themed “Rattlin’ Bones” suggests that a little of Tom Waits’ influence rubbed off; the crowded-but-right arrangement hinges on a piano lick that will probably make you think of Laurel & Hardy.
Maedgen’s “August Nights” is a torch ballad with a few hints of the theatrical, Billie Holiday could have sung it, but so could Nick Cave. And the advance single (already teased in Rolling Stone of all places) is a piano-driven gospel rocker, “Dear Lord (Give Me the Strength),” soulfully sung by tuba player Ronell Johnson. More joyful than its title suggests, it sounds like something Allen Toussaint might have cooked up for Ernie K-Doe.
None of this sounds like too big a stretch; the PHJB sounds like itself no matter what it’s playing. And in the middle of these experiments sits “Come With Me”, a proudly old-fashioned love song to the city played in the group’s ’60s-era style. It’s a hint that the PHJB are as interested in staying the same as they are in changing.