THE BEAT OF A NEW 'HEART'

The Iguanas aspire to Americana greatness on 'Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart'
By Keith Spera - Music writer

Friday March 28, 2003
New Orleans Times-Picayune

From the moment the Iguanas first graced the stages of the Maple Leaf, Cafe Brasil and the Mid-City Lanes, the band has suffered an identity crisis. With saxophones sharing time with accordions and electric guitars, polkas yielding to rock beats and lyrics sung in both Spanish and English, maybe its condition was more akin to multiple personality disorder: Is this a Tex-Mex band? A rhythm & blues band? A rock band? A dance-friendly bar band? Or some only-in-New Orleans amalgamation of all this and more?

The Iguanas' fifth studio album, "Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart," released on Tuesday by Yep Roc Records, transcends questions of style to firmly stamp an ID on the band as it enters its second decade: That of a first-tier Americana roots rock band, the New Orleans response to Wilco.

"Live Iguanas," a concert recording released last year, underscored the band's onstage prowess. The ambitious "Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart" seems to represent a shift in the way the Iguanas approach studio recordings. If the musicians once regarded even studio albums primarily as a documentation of their stage act, they now realize that studio work is a craft unto itself, one that provides additional possibilities well worth exploiting.

To that end, Justin Niebank, who produced the Iguanas' first album, fosters a much more evocative ambiance this time around. Sonically, "Plastic Heart" is easily the most seductive Iguanas album to date. Arrangements are richly textured but afforded plenty of breathing room. Sometimes they ease into the shadows and after-hours melancholy, as if Daniel Lanois were lurking around the corner.

Even the moodier pieces percolate to a steady rhythm, but there are no party-time polkas along the lines of "Take Your Pictures, Your Letters and Your Ring," from the band's 1993 debut. The accordion, a staple of polkas past, surfaces only occasionally on the new album; it appears in the border town romp "Machete y Maiz" and accents the curlicue guitars of "Sugar Cane." Instead, bassist Rene Coman deploys a mellotron, the instrument that synthesized string parts on scores of classic albums from the 1960s and '70s, on an Iguanas album for the first time.

Guitarist, accordionist and vocalist Rod Hodges' songwriting achieves new levels of subtlety and sophistication. He co-wrote the title song, "9 Volt Heart," with former Blaster Dave Alvin. It is a loving remembrance of the role radio -- the "plastic silver 9 volt heart" of the CD title -- has played in his life, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, as he's "doing the dishes long after midnight, talking about the evening news with my wife/Baby wakes up and starts to cry/I turn the radio on low for his lullaby." That he is able to sketch such a simple yet affecting scene, wrapped in the band's warm embrace, speaks volumes about his abilities as a storyteller.

The price paid for overindulgence is a recurring lyrical theme. In the woozy, off-kilter "The Liquor Dance," vocalist/saxophonist Joe Cabral's voice is distorted and stressed by a studio filter. He beams in from a lost cantina with lines like, "Drink your liquor and drop your pants/take a chance and find romance/when you do the liquor dance."

On Hodges' sumptuous "The First Kiss Is Free," guitar tones coalesce into figures that recall Chet Atkins by way of Mark Knopfler. Against drummer Doug Garrison's brushstrokes on the snare, guitar notes quiver, shimmer and bend. It is clearly a track meant for listening, not dancing. But following hard on its heels is the rollickingly "I Dig You," with the electric guitars fully amped once again.

The twin tenor horns of Cabral and fellow saxophonist Derek Huston drive "Un Avion," one of the three songs sung in Spanish, but the minor-key arrangement tugs at the horns with an ominous undertow. The sweet-tempered "Sugar Cane," also by Hodges, employs a metaphor straight out of southwest Louisiana: "Let the tear drops rise, let a river run through my eyes/I won't feel no pain, when she comes home with that sugar cane/Cause she's burning down the cane fields with her love." In Coman's "Goodbye Again," a sing-song organ and sprinkles of piano dress up a perfectly bittersweet midtempo meditation that signs off the album on another high note.

Throughout "Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart," the players never allow themselves to be bound by the orthodoxy of folkloric tradition. Instead, elements of traditional musics -- rhythmic patterns, instrumentation, song structures, melodies -- are mixed, matched and altered to fit the needs of the song at hand. Taken in total, this is the Iguanas' bid to be counted alongside the great Americana bands. It is a record that has taken 10 years to make, and it was well worth the wait.

The Iguanas perform at a CD release party tonight at 8:30 at the Mid-City Lanes.


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