What I like about Gris Gris, an album that I'm listening to for the second time right now, is how spacious the arrangement is for all that's packed in there. The drums are spaced back, and while there is often more than one melody line running, they rarely step on each other. It's a direct antidote to the compressed sound of a lot of rock, especially rock from the last 10-15 years.
I like how open this all sounds, and how weird it gets. I've grown up with Dr. John as one of those canonical figures that I never really get around to listening to, but can pluck from midair without expending any energy. He's turned into a phone-it-in type, who if I recall without thinking I have a hard time telling from Wolfman Jack.
Another part of why Gris Gris feels so successful is that Dr. John stays the hell out of most of it, or at least his voice does. It's so distinctive that it's like tumeric or cardemom, exotic and instantly recognizable but something that requires a fair amount of dish around it to make worth eating. The weakest moments, then, are ones like "Jump Sturdy," which is lots of John and some backing singers. The best moments are ones like "Danse Fambeaux," a roiling swamp of flutes and bongos, ehtereal voices and funk bass. It's something that if done by lesser musicians, like jam bands or even Dr. John later on, would be fucking interminable.
But instead, it's spacy and relaxed and has the feeling of somewhere dark and moist.
What it makes me think of is the difference between swamps in the North and swamps in the South. Most of Michigan is fucking swampland, or was before it was drained, and swamps here bring to mind the clammy feeling of a dead hand or the sweats you get after vomiting, on your way to shivering. The swamps in the South feel fecund, lush and rich. Sure, there are horrible animals that will kill you with poisons that make you feverish and the blood explode from your eye sockets, and if you die you'll be either eaten or rotted under in a day, but they also feel like out of control fertility. I remember once standing on the side of a road, next to the rusted-out hulk of a car, taking a piss. While I was standing there, the kudzu that I was knee deep in clung to my jeans and felt like the grasping invasion of alien vegetation.
That's what Gris Gris makes me think of.