Recording of November 2004: Dummy

NRBQ: Dummy
Edisun ED-17 (CD). 2004. NRBQ, prods.; Billy Shaw, prod., eng.; Alan Stockwell, Joey Interlande, Chris Anderson, engs. AAD? TT: 37:11
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

Probably the highest compliment that can be paid a group is when even their most fanatical fan base has trouble describing their music—and the compliment is even greater when the group has a history as long as that of the New Rhythm and Blues Quartet. NRBQ has made refusing to settle into a single—or any—musical genre their unique contribution to the canon of western popular music: If it comes into their heads, they play it. In a famous early review of the band in Rolling Stone, the now revered critic Peter Guralnick remarked that it wasn't that NRBQ didn't know what to play, but that they "don't know what to leave out."

To succeed, this philosophy of "If it feels right, do it" requires accomplished players and the ability to hang together as a band. Not surprisingly, those are two characteristics that NRBQ, particularly in their live shows, have mastered to a point almost beyond description.

Bassist Joey Spampinato and keyboard genius, comedian, and ever-mugging front man Terry Adams have been at it, with several key personnel changes, since 1967, and a sly sense of humor and a healthy sense of not taking themselves too seriously were there from the beginning. Their self-titled debut on Columbia Records, released in 1969, included covers of tunes by Carla Bley, Eddie Cochran, and Sun Ra. Jimi Hendrix was reportedly a fan, but Columbia's marketing department nearly committed mass seppuku trying to sell the album. Thirty-five years later, NRBQ is where they should be, at least as far as labels go: on their own imprint, where their eclecticism can have full and unfettered rein.

Today's incarnation is a quartet—often joined in concert by one or more of the band's multitude of musical friends—that includes drummer Tom Ardolino, a fan who'd never played in a band before joining the 'Q in 1974, and guitarist Johnny Spampinato, who replaced the great Al Anderson in 1994, who himself had replaced Steve Ferguson in 1971. With 26 albums under their belts, not to mention their kitchen-sink approach to repertoire and style, the band is bound to have released both clunkers and highlights. Their latest studio album, Dummy, falls squarely into the latter category.

The title-track opener, by Adams and Spampinato, starts with a brilliant up-and-down piano figure backed by saxophone accents. It's classic 'Q—few outside perhaps Zappa have dreamt of opening an album with such an offbeat riff. The tune then switches gears (another NRBQ specialty) and morphs into a fairly straight-ahead, piano-led pop tune that is an indictment of intellectual lethargy, with chanted chorus lines of "Dummy." It ends with Adams intoning "The media is my shepherd I shall not want / It maketh me to lie down on green couches..."

The flavor changes with the next track, "One Big Parking Lot," a rock tune with a pop chorus and a rockabilly guitar line; track 3, "Little Rug Bug," meanders along to a reggae beat. But Dummy's heart is tracks 4-7, a stretch that opens with "Call of the Wild," which shows Terry Adams at his songwriting best. Opening with a sitar flourish and progressing via a simple but effective bass line, its chorus of "Will you, will you, will you make love to me / And stop looking at me like I'm crazy" has a melody so irresistibly tuneful and sweet that it could have come from a 1950s AM radio hit. Enhanced by judicious use of echo, it's the album's highlight.

The got-to-have-some-lovin' theme continues with Joey Spampinato's straight-ahead rock tune "I Need Love," before Adams' wistful, singsong "Imaginary Radio" shifts the focus to another of the band's surprising talents: the ability to write children's songs for adults. Finally, there's "Hey Punkin Head," which begins with Adams' exhortation to "Get down"—though not "like when Mick Jagger says get down"—and where Tom Ardolino's drums are prominent in the mix. The chorus is a single falsetto chant by the Spampinatos and Adams of the song's title; Johnny Spampinato's schizo guitar solo feels and sounds exactly right.

Dummy was recorded in several of the band's favorite homes and haunts; the sound is full-bodied and reasonably three-dimensional, the instruments clearly placed, the dynamic range better than on most rock records.

That is, of course, if this is a rock record. Adams' "God with a Blue Dress" is surely roots rock, while "Do the Primal Thing" (complete with deeply grunted chorus) comes from rock's sillier, darker depths. But with the 'Q, there's always (or maybe nothing but) curveballs, to the point that the transition to their breezy take on Gilberto-Jobim's Brazilian jazz standard "All that's Left to Say Is Goodbye" seems like a natural progression.

Even more than their adventurous tastes, the great beauty of the 'Q is that they've been able to perfect an aesthetic of "what's old is new again." It's why Bonnie Raitt and the musical focus of this issue of Stereophile, Elvis Costello, have respectively called NRBQ the best band in America and the best band in the universe. Listen to the 'Q's best records, Scraps, Tiddlywinks, etc., and it's not as if they're doing anything all that revolutionary, or that what you're hearing isn't familiar—it's how they combine ingredients that makes them sound so different.

Like exotic food, not everyone will "get it," which accounts on some levels for the band's struggles to reach larger audiences and larger paychecks. But for those who get the 'Q's piquant blend of herbs and spices, there's only gratitude, wonder, and even some disbelief that this increasingly legendary group keeps on keeping on, to quote Big Joe Turner "with the [musical] pots and pans."—Robert Baird