J. Paul Jr. and the Zydeco Nubreedz

At the recent Original Zydeco Jamm Festival at the Crosby Fairgrounds, Houston's J. Paul Jr. proved he's an amazing showman. Over the course of a one-hour set, he directed an entourage of 14 additional Nubreedz (including his supertight band plus two guest rappers and an energetic fly-girl dance team) in an over-the-top pop/hip-hop extravaganza. It was postmodern, urban and ultra-slick -- not exactly what most folks expect from zydeco. Welcome to the new reality.

Or as J. Paul dubs it on his latest disc, the new "zeality."

This CD, however, doesn't really seek to capture all the hyperintensity and diversity of that multifaceted festival spectacle. Instead it delivers a set of well-crafted zydeco-flavored pop songs, devoid of hip-hop posturing. Ultimately these 11 tracks owe far more to contemporary R&B than to zydeco tradition -- there's nary a waltz or a blues nor so much as a syllable of French to be found.

The songs are all tastefully executed by J. Paul's five-piece band, and they feature as their primary strength his fiercely soulful, slightly raspy, gospel-inflected voice, which is ably supported by fine backing vocal harmonies from bandmates. The dominant lyrical theme is a mature, committed relationship between a man and a woman, touching on the subtopics of not only love and sex but also spirituality, marriage and even child-rearing.

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There's a track called "Can't Get Next to You" that takes that title line and a melodic hook (but little else) from the classic of the same name by the Temptations. Otherwise, it's all original songwriting by J. Paul, in a vein generally more melodic than standard zydeco fare. But if not for the presence of the signature instruments -- accordion and percussive washboard -- there is little else that evokes the Z-word. It's mainly a collection of likable nouveau R&B by a great singer who just so happens also to play the button accordion.

Is this in fact the new reality? Perhaps so. But J. Paul, like practically every other young zydeco front man, might still learn something valuable by studying the recorded legacy of the unsurpassed king of the genre, Clifton Chenier.

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