Bailey Smith swears he didn't mean for the new Morning 40 Federation record to resonate so hard emotionally -- at least not in the particular way that it did. Ticonderoga, which is the 40s fourth release and their second on their new label, M80 Records, was in the can by July of 2005 and only needed to be mastered when Katrina hit, scattering the band and temporarily shelving the project through months of exile and the rebuilding that followed. Finally, the much-awaited Ticonderoga (taken from an Iroquois word meaning "between two bodies of water") will hit the streets on June 18. As changed as those streets have become in the past nine months, having the Ninth Ward's quintessential neighborhood ambassadors of booze, brass and sleazebag New Orleans mayhem back makes everything seem just a little more familiar.
Interestingly, though, this record is a little bit of a leap from the familiar. While their previous recordings (two self-released EP's, Trick Nasty and You My Brother and an eponymous re-mastered compilation of old material as their first release for M80) were fabulously sloppy, sleazy all-out horn assaults, Ticonderoga reflects quite a lot of songwriting growth and attention -- the fruit of a solid label backing many hours in the studio and a band that's matured over their nine years making trouble together. It's a blend of songs they've been performing for years, like the tuba-heavy ominous march "Dumpster Juice" and the slightly unhinged rant "Intuition," and new songs that bear the unmistakable Morning 40 stamp but are markedly evolved. "Washing Machine" is a blissed-out, goofy romantic ballad that's driven by Ryan Scully's falsetto vocal and burbling effects; "White Powder" channels '70s-style cosmic funk; "Skin" is heavy on the jungle drumming and "Conversation Whore" is a stripped-down tune, for them; a barfly's monologue backed by Mark Bingham, who produced the album, tinkling on the piano. Most interestingly, the brass fades to the background on several tracks and guitars step to the fore, practically shredding.
"It wasn't intentional, but that was the way it ended up," says Smith, who plays guitar. "The horn players were fine with it. It's riff-driven, the same as we were doing before. The baritone sax was the bassline before, and now we have more traditional rock 'n' roll." The other records also featured guest horns which filled out the sound, including members of Egg Yolk Jubilee and Liquidrone/Bingo frontman Clint Maedgen on sax. Drummer Mike Andrepont adds, "As musicians in this band, we're much more confident now. And we had a producer who cared and listened to the music and really understood what we were trying to do."
Smith agrees that the label's backing, as it translated to more studio time, is what shows on Ticonderoga. "We got to capture things, instead of winding up with things," he says.
Since wrapping Ticonderoga and planning their tour, the 40s have also been playing with soul legend Andre Williams, a project that has been off-and-on for almost five years. They recorded four songs co-written with Williams, but don't have immediate plans to release them or tour with him.
The thing about the 40s is, their music is New Orleans. It simply could not come from anywhere else. The ragtag gang of disreputable characters with their horns (including a bullhorn) onstage looks like New Orleans. The Tom Waits-meets-Treme blend of brass, ragtime, rock, hip-hop and vaudeville sounds like New Orleans. If you get close enough, it probably smells like New Orleans -- scraped fresh off the floor of Markey's Bar. That's probably why their first shows back in the city were so ultimately cathartic for many, when tears mixed with well bourbon as they took the stage Halloween night at One Eyed Jacks to sing familiar songs that took on fresh intensity.
"[Katrina] affected all of our lives so directly ... how it affected our music remains to be seen," Smith says, adding that between rebuilding and finishing up Ticonderoga, they haven't written any new material since the storm. But they've noticed the reaction.
"It lends itself to new interpretations of songs we already have, like 'Ninth Ward' and 'New Orleans Water,'" Andrepont says. "It definitely affected the way people view our music. It affected the response to us pretty greatly."
In the end, having the 40s back is one more puzzle piece in place for our return to the beautifully abnormal normal of New Orleans.
"People thanked us for coming back," says bassist Steve Calandra. "It's like, New Orleans is back to normal -- the 40s are playing again."
Ticonderoga will be released on June 18.
Douglas Stevenson, talent buyer for Le Bon Temps Roule, passed away at the age of 36 on Thursday, June 1. He had booked bands for the Uptown club for the past six years, and was a well-loved fixture in the New Orleans music scene. Friends and coworkers remember him as "an all-around awesome guy ... he'll be dearly missed." A memorial service was held on Wednesday, June 7.
- Due for release this week, the Morning 40 Federation's new album Ticonderoga was recorded before Katrina.