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Published: 2004/04/27
by Scott Medvin

Miracle Mule – The Subdudes

Back Porch Records 70876-18743-2-1

I opened the Relix logo-adorned package to find yet another band's reunion disc inside. I have no problem with critically-acclaimed acts rehashing their former glory or long-lasting, lesser-known groups coming together again for another shot at fame and fortune. My only problem is when their die-hard fans lambaste my reviews as uneducated and unresearched before telling me that I am – as every music listener is – entitled to my own opinion.

Disclaimers out of the way, I must say that I greatly enjoy the reunited Subdudes' release, Miracle Mule. It is a tasty slice of folksy roots music, genuine and soulful without being heavy-handed. The subdudes are not trying to sound like anyone but themselves, and Miracle Mule is not a concept album aiming to capitalize on the rejuvenated popularity of American roots music.

The Subdudes originally formed in 1987, when guitarist Tommy Malone and percussionist Steve Amedsat in on one of keyboardist/accordion-player John Magnie's weekly gigs at New Orleans' famed Tipitina's. The musicians opted for a stripped down sound, and played only instruments they could carry for the show. The sparse instrumentation allowed them to concentrate on songs and singing, something they still do effectively, utilizing multi-part harmonies to show that the human voice (or an expertly-arranged group of them) is a beautiful thing.

At the time, New Orleans had more local bands than pickpockets and loose women at Mardi Gras, so after building a local following the Subdudes moved out to Fort Collins, Colorado where they further defined their sound by taking bits and pieces of Louisiana blues, R&B, zydeco, and gospel, combining them with a tinge of country rock. Ten years, four studio albums, and one live effort later the trials and tribulations of honing an difficult-to-categorize sound in the fickle commercial music market finally took its' toll on the band, who decided that it was time to move on.

Six years later, the Subdudes reunited at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, adding multi-instrumentalist Tim Cook and bassist/guitarist Jimmy Messa to the group. The next obvious step was to record, and you're reading about the result. Miracle Mule is a fine effort that starts off strong with the glockenspiel-laden gospel track "Morning Glory." Soulful harmonies sit side-by-side with tambourine-based percussion and accordion melodies, emphasizing instruments and sounds not often heard in either the mainstream music or jamband worlds.

"If Wishing Made it So" is a homespun ballad, again featuring layered harmonies that make me wish that groups who can sell a gazillion records or pack amphitheatres and stadiums on a regular basis had actual vocal talent. "I'm Angry" brings more of a straight-ahead rock feel to the table, while "Brightest Star" for some reason reminds me of the opening track from Norah Jones' latest.

I actually like Miracle Mule in the same way that I like Norah Jones' records, or John Medeski's gospel supergroup The Word. There is poignant playing aplenty and actual emotion in the lyrics, something more often than not lacking from cheesy commercial releases. This record makes you feel something, raw emotion brought out by music. That being said, this is not an album I can listen to every day. But next time I'm stuck in traffic on I-95 I plan on throwing it on and mellowing out, ignoring the hustle and bustle around me and revealing in the slightly somber and sometimes joyous vocal and instrumental beauty.

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