It’s painful watching once-successful rock stars age.
Their looks fade, their voices grow more and more strained with every painful performance, and the world counts down to the moment when they realize their best days are behind them and they decide to move on.
Calling Dr. John a rock star is hard because if you ask the next few people you see, most of them will probably have no idea who he is. Unfortunately, that’s how it was even during his heyday in the ’60s and ’70s.
His albums didn’t sell well and failed to chart. The reason anybody talks about him now is that his records were reissued years later and people in the industry kicked themselves for overlooking this gem of a performer. In fact, his debut album, 1968’s “Gris-Gris,” was ranked at No. 143 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
For his latest album, Dr. John worked closely with Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach, who produced the 40-minute disc and provided background vocals, guitar and percussion. Auerbach has even been appearing with Dr. John on television performances as part of his backing band.
It’s impossible to miss Auerbach’s influence on the album. Dr. John has had time to establish his own identity as an R&B and New Orleans jazz-inspired blues rocker, but “Locked Down” sounds like a companion to the Black Keys’ 2010 album “Brothers.”
It’s hard to find a high point in Dr. John’s latest album because that means there must also be low points, which there are not. “Locked Down” is filled with quality tracks that never cause listener interest to wane because they’re consistently good and consistently different.
Opening track “Locked Down” may as well have been included on “Brothers” — the wordless chorus sung by female vocalists flows perfectly with the soul-influenced verses and guitar tangents, all characteristics of the Black Keys album.
“Revolution” is more true to Dr. John’s bayou routes, with its prominent brass section that creates a swanky groove. It’s not hard to pick out individual instruments; it’s just that they blend with each other so perfectly that they sometimes sound like one “super instrument.”
Dr. John has been a man of multiple genres throughout his career, unafraid to explore anything new, so looking at his résumé, the swing-inspired “Big Shot” comes as no surprise. The sexy brass section sounds like it should be played over a video of Betty Boop bopping her giant head around, seducing men with giant cranial fetishes.
It’s strangely hard to define the sound of this album because while Dr. John sounds immensely like the Black Keys this time around, he incorporates influences that Auerbach and Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney don’t. Still, Dr. John’s voice is even at times similar to Auerbach’s, so it’s hard to separate him from the Black Keys.
That may be the biggest downfall of this album. Naysayers will use the similarities as an excuse to write Dr. John off as unoriginal, but they’ll be ignoring the fact that the product he’s pushing is damn good.
Never during any part of “Locked Down” is listening a burden, which tends to happen with a lot of albums, whether you love the artist who made it or not. If the record is longer than a half hour or so, there’s the probability that parts will be boring.
Dr. John has defied the odds here and somehow produced a disc that, while not perfect — only because that is a title very few albums have earned — is a fantastically consistent listen that spans genres, uniting listeners of all relevant genres to their beautiful common ground.