After beginning as a traditional Cajun band in Lafayette, Louisiana, the Lost Bayou Ramblers began experimentally fusing elements of indie rock and other styles into their sound. With Mammoth Waltz they go full-on psychedelic in their arrangements of what remains undeniably rootsy Cajun dance music. They incorporate elements of contemporary indie rock and indie folk, without slipping into those genres’ cliches. This wild and wooly take on Cajun music is like a rocket-fueled blastoff into another dimension! I for one love it.
All of the elements of traditional Cajun music are here. There’s the rocking two-step of “Carolina Blues,” the peppy Cajun waltz of the title track, the funky one-step of “Maree Noire,” the double-waltz of “Croche,” and a funky zydeco crossover in “Blues de Bernadette.”
The difference is the setting. Take “Carolina Blues” for example. In addition to the fiddle and accordion doubling on the melody and the driving rhythm, and the wildly exhuberant vocals of singer-songwriter Louis Michot, there’s Cavan Carruth’s distorted electric guitar and the fuzzed-out bass. The title track has more of the same, with booming percussion added to the mix – it sounds a little bit like a mammoth trying to join in on the dance.
Even more distinctive is “Coteau Guidry,” which appears as both the sixth track and as a final-track reprise, in a remixed version. On this anthemic song two male voices with lots of electronic overdubbing take the verses, and Scarlett Johansson lends her sweet voice to the chorus. The remix is all electronic which allows Johansson’s singing to stand out better. Another guest, Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes), sings guttural harmony vocals on the hard-driving two-step “Bastille,” with two fiddles providing accompaniment in addition to the droning electric guitar and bass.
The collection is bookended (save for the “Guidry” remix) by a couple of pensive songs, more ballad-like and exploratory than the dance music that predominates. The opener, “Le Réveil de la Louisiane,” is kind of a deconstructed song, with the three-part vocals from guitarist Carruth, New Orleans legend Dr. John, and French star and Oscar-nominated singer Nora Arnezeder. It’s apparently the first time this old-time song has been recorded, and it’s done in an atmospheric setting, with stray bits of vocals and instrumentals wafting across the verses seemingly at random, like ghostly vapors in the swamp.
“O Marie” on the other hand is a bayou tour-de-force. At six-and-a-half minutes, it’s a typical Cajun two-step slowed to about half-tempo, to that of a portentous march. At that tempo, it’s easier to take in all the elements that form the backdrop to this album: the droning bass and guitar, the keening accordion and scratching fiddle, the martial tom-tom beat, the ghostly swatches of electronica, the passionate vocals. This is *Mammoth Waltz* encapsulated.
Publicity for the album claims that “mammoth” is the English form of Mamou, which is of course the name of a town at the center of Cajun music and culture. With Mammoth Waltz it seems to me that the Lost Bayou Ramblers are bringing Cajun music full circle. As in the early days of the culture’s revival in the 1960s, they’re incorporating the sounds and attitude of contemporary independent rock into their indigenous music. Picture a wooly mammoth, frozen for millennia that’s been thawed out and is rampaging over the landscape, which is what the CD cover art suggests to me. It’s not for the purists, but experiments like this keep folk culture vibrant and relevant.
Learn more at the Ramblers website and watch the video of Blues de Bernadette right here:
(Bayou Perdu, 2012)