The Iguanas, purveyors of an irresistible blend of roots rock, Crescent City R&B, swamp pop, and Tex-Mex, define themselves by a certain sexy and genuine New Orleans swing. By that we're not talking four-on-the-floor walking and hi-hat sizzle. The band instead offers ample supplies of grease, grit, dance-floor grace, and, now more than ever, lyric-writing gravitas. The group's first studio disc since 1999's Sugar Town, and fifth since playing its initial shows thirteen years ago, isn't as much of a party disc, as, say, its eponymous 1993 debut, or the following year's Nuevo Boogaloo. The Iguanas' latest recording, a reunion with their first producer, Justin Niebank (Eric Clapton, Phish, John Hiatt, Blues Traveler), is a little bit fiesta, with pieces like saxophones-barking stomper "Flame On"; the sneaky, snaking "Zacatecas"; grungy six-string blast "I Dig You"; and the insistent Latin groove of "Un Avion," one of several pieces sung in Spanish.
But it's mostly about atmosphere, texture, and the art and science of songcraft, as perfected primarily by Rod Hodges and Joe Cabral. Nowhere is that evocative ambience more evident than on the floaty ballad "The First Kiss is Free," all air-hanging guitars and distant pastel horns, a gorgeous harmony-laden chorus, and verses that relate a story: "Fat fruit hanging on the trees, and a cotton dress up to her knees," singer-guitarist Hodges offers, in no particular hurry. "It sure is sweet, this highway air, not as sweet as your blossom hair." In a perfect world, this single would top a Billboard chart. In the real world, "First Kiss" and the album ought to generate loads of airplay on Americana radio. "Yesterday," a slab of feel-good nostalgia with a catchy, wordless vocal hook doubled by guitar and pure-pop harmonies, is nearly as appealing a ballad as "First Kiss." So are "9 Volt Heart" -- a product of Hodges's recent songwriting sessions with Dave Alvin, and a tribute to the enduring influence of childhood radio-listening passions -- and "Abandonado."
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Hodges, singer-guitarist-saxophonist Cabral, bassist-keyboardist Rene Coman, saxophonist Derek Huston, and drummer Doug Garrison this time left town to record, holing up for eight days at the Castle, a sprawling, 75-year-old stone complex, once a hideout for Al Capone, just outside of Nashville. The result is an ambitious CD that's a constant delight; call it the finest, most satisfying specimen of rootsy rock this year, so far.