“New Orleans. Exquisite, old-fashioned. A great place to live vicariously…Great place to be intimate or do nothing. A place to come and hope you’ll get smart—to feed pigeons looking for handouts. A great place to record. It has to be—or so I thought.” So wrote Bob Dylan in Chronicles: Volume One.
On Mo Beauty, Alec Ounsworth has felt the call of the swamp. For his solo debut, the lead singer of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, originally of Philadelphia, moved to New Orleans and hired a group of local regulars to back him up. Kind of like Dylan’s sessions with Daniel Lanois on Oh Mercy, which occurred when he was in desperate need of a creative rejuvenation, Ounsworth’s Crescent-City sojourn follows a bit of a slump.
After the out-of-nowhere triumph of their self-released debut album, Clap Your Hands served up a head-scratcher with 2007’s Some Loud Thunder, a critical and fan disappointment that, in its rough-edged exuberance and purposeful opacity, seemed hell-bent on destroying notions that the band was going to be the next Arcade Fire or anyone’s spokesmen for the millennial indie generation. The questions accompanying Mo Beauty concern (1) whether Ounsworth can successfully duck the hype while still making a worthwhile record, and (2) whether the rich cultural ambience of Nola serves as an inspiration for original ideas or a mere venue for aural tourism. The good news is the he comes up mostly successful on both counts.
The local pros backing up Ounsworth on Mo Beauty aren’t exactly nobodies dredged up from some shady Bourbon Street dive. The core backing band includes Stanton Moore, the virtuosic drummer for Galactic and a ton of other affiliated bands; Robert Walter, jazz-funk keyboardist for the Greyboy All Stars and his own Robert Walter’s 20th Congress; George Porter Jr., bassist for legendary funk pioneers the Meters; and Steve Berlin, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist of Los Lobos, who also handles producing duties.
Given the immense talent in the studio, and Ounsworth’s relatively unproven stature, it would be unsurprising for Mo Beauty to be run off the rails in terms of being over-produced, overplayed, and under-conceived. But that isn’t the case here. The album is weighed down by too many slower-paced ballads, but on the whole Ounsworth’s songwriting and singing abilities have mated with the New Orleans atmosphere to produce something special.
As a singer with a unique, nasally bray, Ounsworth could be the lovechild of a Thom Yorke-David Byrne-Bob Dylan threeway, and his vocals usually serve as the dividing line between lovers of his band and its haters. The latter group won’t be changing their minds after hearing Mo Beauty, because here Ounsworth’s voice is even more out in front than it was on Clap Your Hands recordings. Personally, I’ve come around to appreciate the guy’s pipes. They express a kind of bleating, laconic emotionality, a combination that’s rare in indie-rock, where singers tend to be either dripping with ironic self-regard or drowning in heartfelt earnestness; in his staccato-to-swooning phrasing, Ounsworth both dissects and revels in his feelings.
With Clap Your Hands, it was hard to tell what exactly Ounsworth was saying. Because of the cleaner production, it’s a lot easier to grasp what Ounsworth is trying to communicate here, and that’s not always a good thing. While Ounsworth is gifted at the oblique poetry of midnight rock (see the Tom-Waits-ish murder blues “Bones in the Grave”), he’s liable to stumble when he attempts more earnest balladry (“Tomorrow is another day/Everything will get done that day” is a representatively awkward lyric from “What Fun”).
While uninspired lyrics are one reason the ballads on Mo Beauty are its lowest moments, the other is that it’s obvious on these songs that Ounsworth is letting the session musicians do most of the heavy lifting. Songs like “Idiots in the Rain,” apparently dedicated to a street band that performs on Jackson Square, and “What Fun,” a folkie midtempo bid for enthusiasm, sound too much like a Pennsylvania Yankee in the swamp king’s court.
These are boozy, pointless songs that ramble through the French Quarter like a fanny-packed tourist and end up passed out on a park bench. “Holy, Holy, Holy Moses (Song for New Orleans),” as can be detected from its title, suffers from another blatant attempt to capture the spirit of the city and yet somehow succeeds due to its gentle hush and its amiably humble outlook: “How can I claim New Orleans?” Ounsworth sings.
But as anyone who’s been there can attest, New Orleans isn’t really the best place to be sad. It’s a better place to rage, either like a Mardi Gras amateur stripper or a seersuckered epicurean with whiskey and meunière sauce stains trailing down the front of his shirt. Ounsworth falls into the latter category of partygoing on the darkly propulsive rockers like “Modern Girl (…With Scissors),” the aforementioned “Bones in the Grave,” “That Is Not My Home (After Breugel),” and “Me and You, Watson.” The moment in “Modern Girl” where Ounsworth lingers over the lyric “All this useless beauty” with his characteristic wail before making way for a smoky saxophone solo is emblematic of the record’s strengths.
Or take the nourish “Bones,” in which the singer narrates a grotesque tale while riding a snaky guitar line provided by Berlin. Here and elsewhere Ounsworth incorporates New Orleans’s unique energy into his own vision, a kind of sweet spot at the intersection of Dylanesque folk-rock, 1970s funk, and classic indie-rock. Such instances may be a trifle too rare not to make me yearn for the return of Clap Your Hands, but they do prove that Ounsworth is an artistic presence in his own right, and that Mo Beauty is more than a recreational lark.