Marc Cohn takes some chances this time out. The sound, while inviting, is generally a bit rougher and dirtier than on his other albums -- thank goodness. His manner of writing has shifted as well, from well-clipped phrases (still present on the album's beautiful gospel and soul-tinged opener, "Listening to Leon") to places where the ends of his lines become absorbed into the instrumental backing. And yes, it is a very good thing. Excellent examples are on the moody second cut, "The Calling (Charlie Christian's Tune)," where Charlie Sexton's loops, the two drummers playing counterpoint shuffles, Benmont Tench on B-3, and Patrick Warren on Chamberlin and pump organ wrap his voice inside an atmosphere of such warmth and depth that the singer gets seduced by his own tale. There's real interaction here, not just a singer and a backing band. Sexton's electric guitar and Shane Fontayne's strumming acoustic give Cohn the ability to let himself get lost in all this support. And underneath it all is Jennifer Condos' bass, inching the story along. The backing vocals by Charley Drayton and Ephram Owens' muted trumpet solo bring everybody to the table, and the story unfolds like one told in close quarters. "Dance Back from the Grave" brings a sinister, distorted, controlled snarl with Sexton's guitars, the acoustic bassline, the drummers, the horns, and Cohn's world-weary voice, sounding like he's on the edge of some precipice calling like a prophet into the heavens, hells, and other realms for the dead of New Orleans to rise and make their way back to Congo Square for one more night, for a proper sendoff. The Holmes Brothers' deep, sweet three-part harmonies (with Popsy Dixon's gorgeous falsetto riding the top) transform a rather ordinary, bluesy Southern blue-eyed soul tune into something wholly other.
While the first four tunes are engaged with memory, regret, and amends for past misdeeds, "Let Me Be Your Witness" is one of affirmation with a three-part backing female chorus that includes Shelby Lynne and the inimitable Paulette McWilliams and Sharon Bryant. Cohn's piano whispers as Sexton and Fontayne's guitars stroll it out with Tench's B-3 and Condos' bassline fueled by those two drummers. It's gospel, but it's the human gospel: "When no one sees and no one hears/Your secret heart/Your bitter tears/When it feels like you're sinking in the sand/When you can't remember who you are/You wonder how you came this far/Call my name and put me on the stand...." The chorus calls out "Let me be your witness" and Cohn responds like a preacher to every line: "To your mystery/To your ecstasy/...I will testify/To your longest night...." "Giving Up the Ghost," written with former producer John Leventhal, features Lynne in a harmony vocal performance. Fontayne's National Steel is drenched in otherworldly tones underscored by Warren's keyboards, Sexton's live guitar loops, a bouzouki and cello, and those two drummers whispering in the spirits as Cohn's protagonist joins them in a story of the ultimate surrender of lost love. It's chilling, sad, and so utterly picaresque and beautiful that the listener can see the story unfold and witness this forlorn and busted heart trying to come to grips with that loss, only to be drawn in again: "Now I'm feeling much better/But I'm still on the brink/I just got a letter/In vanishing ink."
These images of ghosts and grinning shadows permeate the album, but they speak in flesh and blood: Cohn's. He walks between worlds, or at least sees between them seemingly without effort, wrapping his words in melodies so moody and seductive, inhabited as they are by sounds and spaces never heard before in his recordings, that they draw the listener in nearly obsessively. Acceptance seems to be the key for bittersweet memory, righting wrongs, and finding a safe place to be in a world that is unsafe. Just ask those who are forgotten and have seen it at its worst -- check out "My Sanctuary," yet another song for New Orleans, about the hurricane and the water and the death and its backbone. The Holmes Brothers become the choir as drummers, hand percussion, guitars, organs, Jerome Smith's trombone, and Owens' flügelhorn underscore not only the marching of the funerals through the streets, but the resilience of the place itself. The final cut is a whispered prayer of earthly wisdom about the movement of time and life, despite losses that may be so great that one cannot conceive of living with them. It's a final hymn of acceptance with the Tosca String Quartet underscoring Cohn's words and piano, and a small band to pick up the slack. Quietly speaking with the authority of a Buddhist sage, Cohn is so sure of this truth that he moves it right out of the track and into the heart of the listener. Cohn may have taken years, and driven himself crazy with various versions of these songs, but in the end it all comes down to that last track and what it offers: solace in acceptance. Join the Parade, as an album, is the strongest record he's cut. Let's hope somebody hears it.