Guitarist/vocalist Alex McMurray, sousaphonist Matt Perrine and washboardist Washboard Chaz play in roughly 10 other bands, but it'll be a damn shame if their collaborative effort Tin Men falls by the wayside. Their new CD, Super Great Music for Modern Lovers, is one of the most engaging New Orleans albums in recent memory and an instance of the sum being more than its formidable parts.
The sound of Super Great Music for Modern Lovers is an American music panorama, ranging from '30s-era swing (Fats Waller's "Lulu's Back in Town") and jug band classics ("Cocaine Habit Blues"), '50s-era Sun Ra (the doo-wop-ish "Dreaming"), '60s Bob Dylan rock ("Mixed Up Confusion") to '70s R&B ("Function at the Junction"). Add in six McMurray originals and one new song each from Perrine and Chaz, and you've got a diverse musical buffet.
Tin Men's CD is McMurray's finest hour -- and I previously never gave him the time of day. His manic musical personality can be a handful, and while other observers have praised his Tom Waits-in-New Orleans persona and twisted, often cynical lyrics, his vocals usually strike me as affected and his lyrics bitter.
But McMurray has a superb trilogy of sorts early in the album with three originals titled "Drunk & In Love," "Still Drunk" and "Useless Without You." The subject matter's familiar territory for him, and similar past McMurray compositions chronicled miserable losers with a sneering delivery. However, the hapless protagonists of these new songs are lovable losers about whom McMurray sings with gleeful affection and -- gasp -- even tenderness. "Still Drunk" is a four-minute comedy/drama, featuring a hilarious spoken-word skit intro featuring local songbird Debbie Davis trying to rouse the inebriated musician for a promised trip to the zoo. From there it turns into a devastating ballad with McMurray singing brilliant bleary-eyed lines such as, "I would be lying to you if I said I'd never lie to you." In the hands of the right contemporary-country hat act, it might even be a hit.
McMurray's notorious stage antics -- remember when he announced at the 1998 Big Easy Awards that he couldn't wait to stick his d--k in the mashed potatoes? -- have sometimes overshadowed the fact that he's blossomed into one hell of a guitar player. His six-string work throughout the album swings ferociously, and on the vintage jazz material, McMurray's fast strumming and tone approximates the pitch of a banjo. Elsewhere, he blasts out a meaty rock lead and solo on "Function at the Junction," and incorporates island rhythms into "You Can Be Sure if It's Cabral."
McMurray might be the de facto frontman since he handles the guitar work and bulk of the vocals, but Perrine and Chaz are perfect foils and every bit his equal in the band. Perrine continues to prove he's one of the best brass men in New Orleans; his deep bass rumblings on "Function at the Junction" thunder like an elephant, and his frantic, squalling outbursts on "Cocaine Habit Blues" captures the song's inspiration. Chaz is similarly dazzling; his craggy, laconic vocal style is suited for the Irving Berlin song "He Ain't Got Rhythm," and his skittering spoon work and solo break on the Perrine instrumental "Wherever Yer at Blues" sounds like a Savion Glover tap-dance.
Chaz's secret weapon, oddly enough, is a short-order cook's counter bell. At the most unexpected times on the album, the groove is punctuated with "ding!s" that simultaneously evoke 1950s diners and the modern catch phrase "Cha-ching!" It's used to perfection in Chaz's lament "Working in a Restaurant," where the timeless theme and harried beat would sound perfectly at home in a Marx Brothers movie.
Only one minor complaint: Super Great Music for Modern Lovers could have benefited from some editing. "You Can Be Sure if it's Cabral" is a tossed-off inside joke paying homage to the Iguanas' Joe Cabral, and McMurray's "Location, Location, Location," despite deftly namechecking such local watering holes as Markey's Bar, feels labored over. But maybe it's ultimately a plus that this band is working hard enough to have a surplus of material -- McMurray, Perrine and Chaz have proved their Tin Men has a heart that deserves a full-time beat.