The Iguanas' Tender Heart
by Christiopher Blagg
OffBeat Magazine - March, 2003
Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart
(Yep Roc Records)
For years I'd passed the Iguanas off as the New Orleans version of roots rock superheroes Los Lobos. This was unfair. While the comparison does contain some validity, there is much more going on Lobos-lite. With each album, the Iguanas have shown a remarkable surge in creativity and maturity. Their latest offering, Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart, is by leaps and bounds their finest, and frankly, one of the most complete albums to come out of New Orleans in years. It's really that good.
It's been about five years since their last studio album, Sugartown, and it seems the lengthy incubation period has provided the band time to explore alternate sonic avenues. Unlike the live party atmosphere that dominates Sugartown, the new record thrives on nuance and an almost melancholic late night vibe. The album sounds as if it were wrapped in a gauzy haze evoking at times the moody balladry of Roy Orbison. The tunes on Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart feel like the kind the band plays after their dance-crazed crowd has stumbled home. While there are some typically Iguanish R&B and Tex-Mex excursions on the new record, it is the dreamy sensual numbers that set the record apart. I would be hard pressed to name a more seductive song than the evocative ballad "The First Kiss Is Free." Dual guitars dance nimbly alongside Doug Garrison's light brushwork as Rod Hodges implores "Touch me baby I'm all alone. I'd like to make your love my home." It's reminiscent of Willie Nelson's stunning Teatro album, yet with an even wispier vibe. The sexually charged atmosphere continues with the slow sinewy funk of "Sugar Cane" which extols the medicinal properties of the fairer sex. Fueled by a chunk-a-chunk guitar rhythm and accordion accents, the protagonist declares, "Let the teardrops rise, let a river run through my eyes. I won't feel no pain, when she comes home with that sugar cane." The backbone of the album, and what gives it its emotional weight, is the nostalgia-laden track entitled "9 Volt Heart." Coasting along on a gorgeous melody, Hodges delivers a Norman Rockwell soundscape of the huge role pop music has on our lives. The song could have easily been a sentimental traipse into small town schmaltz, but remarkably, stays afloat. There's an unmistakably cinematic quality to the lyrics where heavily traversed themes such as frantic teenage desire are given new life "She was 20, I was 16-years-old, sitting in a parked car on a country road. Running my fingers through her long black hair, Staples singing 'Baby, I'll take you there .'" Each verse falls into a chorus buttressed by high whispery layered harmonies singing "Plastic silver 9 volt heart, click it on and let the music start. The radio was my toy." The exposed tenderness of "9 Volt Heart" is a revelation.
Nostalgia also plays a role on the opening track, but with a less Rockwellian theme. "Yesterday" opens with a lazy groove under a weeping electric slide guitar as the innocence of childhood is thrown on its head. "I gave my baby brother my old coat. The sleeves were too long and the zipper was broke. Mom said 'You boys should share.' I got my brother high at the county fair." It wouldn't be an Iguanas record without some stellar sax honking over some liquor and women-themed R&B tunes, so Joe Cabral and Derek Huston's blustering twin sax attack of "Zacatecas" satisfies this thirst. For pure adrenaline deliverance, however, the chugging "Flame On" will create a sure-fire disturbance on the dance floor. Unfortunately, the other pure up-tempo rock 'n' roller on the album, "I Dig You," suffers from some painful attempts at lyrical metaphor. "You got me deep in trouble. You're a buried treasure. With a big ol' shovel I dig you," and the pedestrian line "You're so smart and witty. All the way to China I dig you." Despite its problematic lyrical stylings, the song is resurrected and propelled by Rene Coman's thumping bass line and a driving repeated guitar riff that gives it some much needed weight.
When most roots rock bands decide to put out a Latin tune or two on an album, whether successful or not, the songs undoubtedly stick out. Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart is produced in such a way that the Latin-tinged tunes ease seamlessly into the more standard rock and R&B songs. The Cubanistic "Machete y Maiz" with its lively bass and guitar interplay and feathery accordion is a standout, as well as the more Caribbean feel of "Un Avion" which finds all five musicians locked in on a moody mid-tempo groove. It's the ethereal and dreamy "Mexican Candy" that proves the most interesting of the lot with its seemingly ambivalent swapping between Spanish and English and plushy saxophone breaks. In this age of random "superjams" where musicians on a mere acquaintance level are thrown together and expected to create something meaningful, it is refreshing to hear a band that is so in sync and comfortable with each other. Too many bands in this city get complacent with a solid live performance reputation, but the Iguanas have moved forward in their songwriting to create their finest recorded achievement to date. With the release of this great new record, the Iguanas have emerged as not only a live performance giant, but as a thrilling and creative composing force as well. Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart surprised the hell out of me.