March, 2003

Clink Album Reviews
The Iguanas
Plastic Silver 9-Volt Heart [Yep Roc Records]

by William Michael Smith

Those of us who have been hearing The Iguanas in little rock and blues clubs up and down the Gulf Coast for the past decade have gotten spoiled. The Iguanas? Continental Club Saturday night? Cool, just walk up and buy a ticket. It may be crowded, but it won’t sell out. On Plastic Silver 9-Volt Heart, The Iguanas continue a seamless string of albums that has remained resolutely true to their broad cultural background and to the musical styles of the Crescent City. With wider national distribution through Yep Roc/Redeye, Plastic Silver 9-Volt Heart may just move The Iguanas from our tasty local lagniappe to a national main course.

A consummate party bar band, The Iguanas have always been a bit of an enigma in roots music, mostly because they have so many roots and are consequently so damned musical. A band consisting of Hispanics and Anglos all baptized in the dirty rain gathered in the Creole musical gumbo pot of the Big Easy, over the course of any album they can range across honky-tonk, Latin, Caribbean, blues, funk, jazz, and rock and most points in between on the North and South American musical maps. The roux is New Orleans hipster-in-wrap-around-shades grooves and the condiments are zonked saxophones and greasy guitars, but the band is capable of stretching out from the more traditional RnB sounds of New Orleans into sloe-eyed brassy Tex-Mex and even smart Latin folk with all the ease of a flambeau making his way through the streets at sunset. With band members who can interchangeably play guitar, keys, drums, and horns and have no fear of subtle minor chord changes or tempo shifts and with their wide exposure to different styles, The Iguanas can vary their sound like few other bands seem able to do.

Plastic Silver 9-Volt Heart is a typical Iguanas mix. There is a loose theme of remembrance and reminiscence; the album begins with “Yesterday” and includes titles like “First Kiss” and “Goodbye,” and ends with “Yesterday Reprise.” The title comes from a line in “Radio” a lazy memory of a New Orleans childhood and the pervasive role the transistor radio played in a gentler, less manic time. Masters of the groove, The Iguanas never rush, never over-accelerate, they just keep adding subtle layers and textures until a lazy melody attains all the force of the Mississippi River, where the surface calm is completely misleading. This lilting track, written by Iguana Rod Hodges and Dave Alvin, is about soul, not speed.

Lookin' for my daddy inside that bar
Mama said "baby, wait for me in the car"
Sat and let the music wash over me
Plastic silver 9-volt heart
Click it on and let the music start
The radio was my toy

Come party time, they do amp it up a bit and let the good times roll. “I Dig You” has the dirty sound of twin-guitar garage rock and some great kiss-up pick-up lines like “you’re a buried treasure / with a big old shovel.” “Flame On” is a humorous but edgy homage to New Orleans bar bands with a deep syncopated hard-rocking groove, after-midnight vocals, and a French Quarter back alley excitement propelled by nasty guitar fills and snaky too-cool brass. The vibe is similar to the funkiest tracks by Morphine, but the lyric is straight up New Orleans hepcat-deluxe jive.

They'd had two nights off, they was ready to rock again
They had some brand new suits and a brand new 8 by 10
Debbie's got nice legs, she's got a black dress on
And wears cat-eyed shades all night long

Flame on, flame on
Party boys and party girls down at the Flamin' O
Flame on, flame on

“Sugar Cane” is another smooth groover that works between New Orleans funk and roots rock. It also makes use of an archetypical Louisiana metaphor that is so on target.

Let the whole world pass me by
When she lays next to me
While I listen to her warm heart beat
'Cause she's burnin' down the cane fields with her love

Despite their penchant for deep funk grooves, the band can also meander across the boundaries almost to the edge of pop with sweet tunes like “First Kiss” (although at 6 minutes 45 seconds, it’s way too long for a pop song). Like a pot of rice on a gas stove, this one just bubbles along on low flame without ever foaming over and causing a mess. The vocal has a reflective, believable sincerity as the singer recalls how he found the love of his life. This is Southern cool-cat pop.

I said touch me baby, I'm all alone
I'd like to make your love my own
'Cause it sure is sweet, this highway air
But not as sweet as your blossom hair
She said, "Babe, the first kiss is free"

She's an Okie paradise, a Mexican dream
Heart like silver, lips like cream
She looked at me with that crazy smile
Said I'd like to stick around for a while
She said, "Babe, the first kiss is free"

As with any Iguanas album, there are detours south of the border. The band has always kept an ear on border radio (they cut some of their earliest tracks in San Antonio a decade ago) and distinctive trends in Latin-American popular music. “Abandonado” is mystical and murky with a sheen of blue sultriness while “El Avion” has all the qualities and rhythm of sexy Latin dance pop. Driven by a rip-n-tear sax riff and a catchy horn chart that recalls Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips,” the really nasty track here is “Zacadacas,” a driving funk testimony to the powers of tequila (it’s soul mate is the hilarious tipsy novelty “Liquor Dance,” which features the great line, “you look just like a movie star / with your face down on the bar”).

Plastic Silver 9-Volt Heart calls to mind a little Cuban sandwich shop on a side street across from the Monteleone Hotel that is one of my favorite out-of-the-way hangouts in New Orleans. Nothing could be much better than an afternoon spent in there with those window units humming on “high,” a Budweiser longneck in my hand, a Cuban sandwich on my plate, and The Iguanas on the jukebox. and

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