Friday, June 13, 2008

TERRELL'S TUNE-UP: SWISS VOODOO CAJUN MUSIC

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
June 13, 2008


This is not your father’s Cajun music.

Tu as Perdu ton Chemin is the work of a Swiss band called Mama Rosìn.

Swiss Cajuns? There are no alligators in the Alps, but I guess they speak French in Switzerland as well as in Louisiana, though it’s a little different.


And, no, the band isn’t named after some nice old lady who speaks Yiddish and makes chicken soup. It’s a traditional Louisiana song best known from the version by Cajun stomper Zachary Richard and is covered on this album under the title “The Story of Mama Rosin.”

Befitting of the group’s label, Voodoo Rhythm, the sound is rougher and rawer than most of the authentic Cajun and zydeco music produced in recent years. No pop-hit covers, no reggae overtones or jam-band trappings here.

It’s rootsy bayou punk at its finest. The band sounds closer to Cajun than do The Watzloves, Voodoo Rhythm’s other group that dabbles in these sounds. (The German-based Watzloves, however, do have a member from Louisiana — DM Bob.)

These Geneva Mama's boys have all their traditional Cajun instruments down — accordion, banjo, and even a triangle. You can tell they love and respect Cajun and zydeco as they romp through traditional favorites such as “La Valse Criminelle” and “Pine Grove Blues.” They love the music and respect the tradition. But fortunately they don’t treat it too reverently.

There’s a hopped-up drummer who sounds as if he’s trying to beat an alligator to death with his sticks. And there are lots of weird little touches, such as the subtle electro-freakout surge that threatens to overwhelm the end of “Johnny Can’t Dance.”

The strangest and most wonderful song here is “Rita’s Breakdown,” which, in addition to the accordion and slide guitar, features almost industrial-style drums and some metal guitar. With the sirens in the background, it’s almost as if Public Enemy produced a BeauSoleil record.

You can’t help but love the simple touches too, such as the spirited if somewhat out-of-tune hollering by the singer on the waltz “Prairie Ronde.”

Also recommended:

* Someone’s Got to Pay
by The Wilders. I’ve covered a lot of murder trials for The New Mexican, but I’ve never served on a jury. But Phil Wade, who plays guitar, mandolin, banjo, and dobro for the Kansas City, Missouri, country-rock band The Wilders, did, back in 2005. He and his fellow jurors in Jackson County decided on a life sentence for “a young man, recently divorced, who shot his ex-wife outside her apartment complex,” Wade writes in the liner notes of this album.

“As I listened to the testimony unfold, I was unnerved by a nagging familiarity to the story. It was an old murder ballad come to life.”

The life-sentence decision was not something Wade took lightly. And apparently the experience has haunted him. He wrestles with it on Someone’s Got to Pay.

This isn’t really a concept album, though there are recurring interludes called “Sittin’ on a Jury,” which deals with various aspects of the trial — the defense, the prosecution, the verdict, etc. Some end with the plea, “Hey, Mr. Judge, let me off of this jury.”

The murder-trial aspect of the CD lured this old crime reporter into the album, co-produced by “Renaissance Mountain Man” Dirk Powell. Thus I discovered a band that makes a tired genre sound fresh. Songs like “Wild Old Nory” (a hard-rocking bluegrassy tune that could almost be an old ballad though it was written by Wilder singer Ike Shelton) and “My Final Plea,” (a fiddle-driven honky-tonker) deserve to be alt-country classics.

* Trains and Boats and Planes by Laura Cantrell. This is a nine-song EP by a New York country gal. Cantrell, born in Tennessee, hosted a show called Radio Thrift Shop for many years on New Jersey’s WFMU-FM. (Full disclosure: I’ve never met Cantrell, but both of us are part of the Freeform American Roots (FAR) radio group that produces a monthly chart. )

In recent years, she’s become best known for her own music. Her 2000 album Not the Tremblin’ Kind made her a favorite of the late British DJ John Peel and helped lead to an opening spot on an Elvis Costello tour.

Cantrell’s talent is only eclipsed by her great tastes. I knew I was going to love Trains and Boats and Planes — if only for her covers of two of my favorite obscure country songs from the early ’70s: Roger Miller’s “Train of Life” (covered by Merle Haggard on his landmark 1971 Someday We’ll Look Back album) and John Hartford’s “Howard Hughes’ Blues” from one of his greatest albums, Morning Bugle (1972).

Plus there are versions of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” New Order’s “Love Vigilantes,” a sad soldier song that sounds like it was written as a country tune, and a nice down-home version of the Burt Bacharach-penned title cut, which originally was a “British Invasion” tune by Billy J. Kramer and The Dakotas.

I believe there was a federal law in the 1970s that stated that all country-rock bands had to cover Haggard’s “Silver Wings.” I’m not sure if it’s still on the books (it might have been amended to “Pretty Polly” sometime in the late ’90s), but Cantrell does such a fine cover of the Hag classic you almost forget you’ve heard it a zillion times.

Sorry technophobes, but this is a digital-only release, available from iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, and other digital retailers. As the Firesign Theatre might say, if you ask for it at a store, they’ll think you are crazy.

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