Girls Gone Wild; Our New Orleans; Charlie Brown Christmas blues; The Fiery Furnaces’ Rehearsing My Choir; The Future Has Already Replaced The PastAs with avoiding the words “funky” and or “gumbo” when writing about Nawlins, it’s nearly impossible to write about a Katrina relief benefit album without bumping up against this ghoulish disconnect: A lot of people died; you should buy this album and party down. So let’s start there.
The official death toll is 1,300. But as NPR reported last month, nearly 500 children are still missing. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. How do you assign a body count to a way of life?
It may be hard to imagine if you’ve seen New Orleans only from Girls Gone Wild videos, but the city was much, much more than a place to get hammered and throw Mardi Gras beads at coed tits. I’ll spare you the oft-repeated magnolia-scented mantras about the Big Easy in the wake of the flood, save this one: There was no place on earth like it, which is an impossibly rare distinction at the dawn of the 21st century, when our big blue marble has essentially become the third mall from the sun.
The confluence of musical miscegenation, antebellum architecture, ancient humidity, cayenne peppa, bottomless bottles of bourbon and a centuries-old culture of corruption combined to create a forbidden zone on the buckle of the Bible Belt, where nothing was true and everything was permitted. That’s all gone now, of course, washed into the sea like footprints in the sand.
All that’s left behind is Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast, an extraordinary gathering of the city’s living musical heritage: the likes of Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Buckwheat Zydeco, Irma Thomas and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, each and every one at the top of their game. I’m sure all you ‘XPN types are already partying your Skechers off to this little gem of a release, so I won’t waste space preaching to the choir.
To everyone else, I know what you’re thinking: This is gonna be one of those supposed-to-be-good-for-you white-liberal-guilt-fests. Wrong. Half of Our New Orleans is a stone soul picnic-like there’s a party in your pants, where the saints go marching in.
The other half is essentially a funeral march. Anyone who can sit through Buckwheat Zydeco’s “Cryin’ in the Streets” or Irma Thomas’ “Backwater Blues” or Allen Toussaint’s without being moved — well, we’re gonna have to send out a search party for your humanity. As they used to say in my ‘hood: This is some iconic shit. Like, Buena Vista Social Club good.
Speaking of which, a recent study commissioned by the Library of Congress suggests as much as 72 percent of American music recorded before 1965 is commercially unavailable. That’s both appalling and par for the course-the future has always erased the past. To preserve instead of overwrite is to go against nature, which is in part what makes the Fiery Furnaces’ Rehearsing My Choir so brave.
Released late last year, Choir is essentially a song cycle about the life of Furnace duo Matt and Eleanor Friedberger’s grandmother — 83-year-old Olga Sarantos — with Granny doing the narrating. It sounds like a bunch of kids down in the basement, firing up the old Victrola and reading aloud from family diary entries while grainy home movies flicker on the screen.
Some will hate it, but I think it has all the juvenile pathos and awkward beauty of a Charlie Brown Christmas special-all bare-ruined choirs, pencil-shaded blues and good grief. And like Our New Orleans, Rehearsing My Choir is a sandbag levee holding back the torrent of the future from washing away our most precious national heirloom: our cultural memory. Your purchase will help fill a bag with sand.