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Out of the Shadows

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After 15 albums -- three of them Rhino compilations -- new Neville Brothers releases aren't news the way they once were. In the 1980s, the band was the great local underdog, playing legendary shows at Tipitina's one weekend a month while local fans waited for them to record the album that captured the magic of those shows. After 1989's Yellow Moon, shows had a celebratory quality as the band finally got its national due with an album that showed the world we weren't crazy for championing them.

But you can only be an underdog for so long, and all parties end. For the Neville Brothers, that meant that subsequent albums were greeted with some indifference, to some extent because they felt like inferior imitations of Yellow Moon. During the '90s, the band didn't always seem to be the brothers' biggest priority either, so it's no surprise it wasn't ours. If the new Walkin' in the Shadows of Life (Back Porch) is similarly received, it would be a shame because it's the band's most unified and successful album since 1990's Brother's Keeper.

A turntable joins the group's rhythmic arsenal on the title track, but for the most part the Nevilles sound very comfortable with their old-school ways. Whether it's the Funkadelic carnival of keyboard squiggles and bass roars on "Poppa Funk," trading vocals Temptations-style (panned from channel to channel for added psychedelic effect) on the cover of "Ball of Confusion," or Charles' flute recalling early-70s soul-jazz on "Your Life," the album sounds firmly rooted in classic soul music, which is where the Nevilles belong. At their best, the Neville Brothers are a soul band with the same concerns as Curtis Mayfield, Sly Stone and Bobby Womack: How does anyone live and love in times like these?

And times are tough on this album. Aaron's "Junkie Child" recalls Gil Scott-Heron's "The Bottle" in its unflinching depiction of addiction, though more harrowing is "Your Life." It's not graphic, but when the main character says in the verse, "Don't want to die young / want to live to grow old," the brothers instruct in the chorus, "Don't you walk outside / without looking around." The bleakness of that response is chilling.

The answer here, as it has always been for the Neville Brothers, is family. In the beautiful "Brothers," they sing in the chorus, "We were / we are / we're still / brothers," and if that seems a bit simple, it's convincing because on Walkin' in the Shadows of Life, they sound like brothers. Songs rarely have only one singer, and no song sounds like it's the product of only one Neville. The title track might be the sort of vaguely anthemic song the Nevilles are known for, but songs with smart, clear-eyed lyrics show the Neville Brothers are a lot more than just ambassadors of New Orleans groove.

Attentive New Orleans sports fans heard "Pass It!" by Papa Grows Funk going into a commercial during Game 7 of the American League Championship between the New York Yankees and eventual champion Boston Red Sox. In fact, John Gros says, a few tracks were used over the course of the baseball season and during last year's NBA Finals. "A friend who's a fan lives in New York," Gros explains, "and he's a producer for FOX." Baseball fans may also have noticed Susan Cowsill singing the national anthem for Game 3 in Fenway Park with the rest of the Cowsills.

The cover of Asobi Seksu's self-titled debut album promises something exotic. With a photo of a Japanese woman sleeping amid a handful of Polaroids beside an old portable record player, the album looks a little like the soundtrack for a '70s Japanese soft-core porn film. The album is, instead, a collection of attractive, My Bloody Valentine-influenced pop songs with lovely melodies in front of a storm of guitars, some discordant, some harmonious; it's only Japanese connection outside of the album packaging and the band's name -- Japanese for "play sex" -- is female singer Yuki Chikudate.

"It just kind of happened," guitarist James Hanna says from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. "It was never so calculated. The stupidest reason for the name is that it was the best thing we could think of. It's so hard to get a name that doesn't sound goofy or cheesy. Going into another language made it a lot easier."

Not only is the band's name Japanese, but many of the lyrics are as well. "She just started singing in Japanese, and we liked it," Hanna says. In some cases, the lyrics are little more than rhythmic elements, as is the case in Chikudate's singing of the title in "Asobi Washo," but the Japanese lyrics for "I'm Happy But You Don't Like Me" are sung meaningfully. Even when the lyrics are in English, the lead vocal remains more of a melodic addition to the song rather than a way of communicating. "I like a lot of instrumental music, but we always wanted to be in a band with songs," Hanna says.

The Neville Brothers' new Walkin' in the Shadows of Life is the band's most unified album since Brother's Keeper.
  • The Neville Brothers' new Walkin' in the Shadows of Life is the band's most unified album since Brother's Keeper.

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