The Subdudes,
Behind the Levee
(Back Porch/Virgin, 2006)

In the magical place where laid-back R&B intersects with Cajun exuberance, the Subdudes concoct a brand of American music that aims to sooth the soul and move the feet.

Behind the Levee, the Subdudes' sixth studio album, launches with a pair of terrific songs. "Papa Dukie & the Mud People" combines a Motown-influenced melody and horn breaks with accordion and wah-wah guitar to create an infectious track that's sure to have folks heading for the dance floor. "Next to Me" slows the pace, a soulful ballad that recalls Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" heyday. It's a wonderful start that will have listeners looking forward to a full 10 tracks of exceptional music. But it's not to be.

Clocking in at less than 150 seconds, "No Vacancy," the album's third track, feels fragmentary and is where Behind the Levee begins to falter. The interplay between the vocals, guitar and accordion is lovely but the percussion is terribly flat. The cardboard-sounding snare, falling behind the beat, is too far forward in the mix -- a strong song that loses much of its potential due to some poor production choices. Unfortunately the next track, a starry-eyed ballad of social injustice that might have made a great closer to the album, is a bit lost at this point in the disc, lacking the energy to rebound from the faults of "No Vacancy."

From here the album does recover somewhat with the quirky "Social Aid & Pleasure Club," a track that feels akin to Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me Not to Come." Part spoken-word, part wild guitar solo, all propelled along by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band horns. Further along, "Let's Play" strikes a similarly light-hearted note, drawing its cheery lyrics from nursery rhymes.

Zydeco accordionist/vocalist Rosie Ledet puts in a guest appearance on "Looking at You," turning it into a sexy, shiny thing that simmers along on a bed of staccato guitar hits and understated accordion. Behind the Levee closes out with "Prayer of Love," a pretty but unexceptional song that sounds like it's been drawn from the back pages of the Van Morrison songbook.

The construction of this album, which places a ballad after nearly every upbeat cut, works against any rhythmic momentum the tracks manage to gather. The disc would have benefited from an additional up-tempo track or two early on, and at a mere 40 minutes in duration another couple of songs could easily have been squeezed in.

In the end, the Subdudes' latest album falls a bit flat despite the presence of some wonderful songs. Much of the problem, I feel, lies with the inexperience of producer Keb' Mo', a Grammy Award-winning bluesman with almost no production experience outside his own recordings. Someone with a little more range behind the boards might have built a more distinct personality and greater sonic energy into Behind the Levee's slower songs, elevating the entire project to match the power of the opening tracks.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
1 July 2006

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