Thursday, September 30, 2004

ALBUM REVIEW: BEAUSOLEIL "CAJUN CONJA"

Album Review: BeauSoleil "Cajun Conja"

*Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this and other reviews are my own. French song titles do not have accent marks because my keyboard does not have them available.*

I believe Cajun Conja is the first BeauSoleil album released on the Rhino label in 1991, which to me signifies the real start of their more modern sound. This is an excellent album with a very diverse collection of traditional dance numbers and Michael Doucet-penned originals that sound just as good as anything traditional. The songs on here are not just two-steps and waltzes; there are haunting Caribbean tales, old French ballads, bluesy bar songs and even a slightly Celtic-sounding reel.

This is a good album for listening to when you are in a variety of moods or want to see a good selection of the different styles BeauSoleil can do without getting too un-Cajun. It's very hard for me to pick my favorite album from this band, but this is definitely one of my favorites. I had heard many songs from it before I had it, and when I realized they were all collected on this album I knew I had to purchase it. I received it for my birthday in 2001, and have enjoyed it ever since. This is one of BeauSoleil's most consistently good albums and it has something for everyone.

1) Sophie

What a stunning song!! BeauSoleil has rarely recorded any faster songs than this. The fiddling is wild and gorgeous, the drum beat is pounding, and the guitars (including some electric guitar) spice things right up. The lyrics tell of an evening summertime romp with a woman named Sophie, and the lyrics combined with the happy sounding dance music surely put me in a summer mood. The lyrics are half in French, half in English. Michael Doucet, the lead singer and fiddler, wrote the music and words and he did a darn good job of it!

2) Tortue Perdue

This is your typical Cajun two-step. Steady fiddling, lots of accordion, and a steady driving drum beat. Although this is a good song, it's not really much of a standout. It's certainly fun to listen to, and it's great for dancing. I can't really say much else about it other than it is typical of a BeauSoleil two-step.

3) Conja (New Orleans 1786)

This is a very dark, historical song written by Michael. It's not a typical BeauSoleil song. The main instruments seem to be the drums and percussion, as well as some gritty electric guitar. It's very Caribbean-sounding, which ties into the mostly English lyrics about the West Indies population of old New Orleans and their voodoo religion. This is definitely a good example of BeauSoleil's rare historically-themed songs. The guitar, accordion, and fiddle all sound much darker and African than they do on the rest of the songs. This is quite an interesting piece, and further shows how BeauSoleil was expanding their repitoire in this era of their career.

4) Vieux Crowley

This is certainly one of the best songs on the entire album! It is a fast, furious two-step instrumental led by Jimmy Breaux's accordion. If there is any doubt in your mind that Cajun music is good for dancing, this number should put those doubts to rest. Each member gets a chance to shine on his instrument here, which shows the progression from a more traditional song and tune tradition to a new, solo-based arrangement structure. What I mean is that there is a general theme to the songs, and at the beginning of the song the band plays that theme together. Then, each musician plays a solo based on that theme. That is what the BeauSoleil song formula seems to be since the 1990s and it is a huge change from what they were doing before. Breaux's accordion is the standout of the song. The accordion sound has a rhythm all its own that lends itself well to dancing. Nowhere is that more apparent than "Vieux Crowley." I love this song!

5) Sur le Pont de Lyon

Yet another dark-sounding song that goes beyond the usual Cajun stuff. This is an old French ballad sung by Michael. The fiddle is steady and moody, not a playful style but more of a rhythmic playing except during the lyric breaks. There is a lot of dirty, slightly bluesy guitar playing by Richard Thompson. The lyrics tell a dark tale of a young lady taken away from her father's house. This song is like nothing BeauSoleil has done before or since. It's a good song, but a little dark for my tastes.

6) Cajun Telephone Stomp

This is a fun little two-step that starts off with some unique, high pitched fiddling and then settles into a typical danceable BeauSoleil groove. The lighthearted lyrics tell about a Cajun's frustration with the modern convenience of answering machines. The fiddling is light, fun, and fluid as usual, and the accordion is solid. This song is a little more entertaining to me than "Tortue Perdue" but both songs are good. Once again, BeauSoleil proves that it is one of the top dance bands in America.

7) La Nuit de Clifton Chenier (Clifton's Night)

This is a sweet, mid-tempo romantic song about dancing under the moon to Clifton Chenier's music. The lyrics are in French and then translated to English. Somehow the band does a nice job of setting a lazy, enchanting romantic mood. Tommy Comeaux's mandolin adds a touch of tropical island flavor to the rest of the music, and Jimmy's accordion works its usual magic. The accordion on this album is simply amazing. Michael's lyrics are as good as any he's ever done on a love song. This song will put you in a good mood even if you aren't next to the one you love.

8) Le Reel de Nez Pique

A short little acoustic reel. Michael Doucet's fiddle is front and center here, backed up by guitar and mandolin, a few licks of accordion, and probably some triangle by Billy Ware. It's a simple tune and the simplicity really works. It's also a nice break from the dance songs.

9) 'Ti Monde

A slower, groovier, bluesier song that sounds like something you might hear in a Louisiana bar in some small town. The band members play a slow, lazy groove while Michael emotes with his wonderful voice. To my ears, the song sounds like something a Zydeco band might play, so there's a bit of Zydeco flavor too.

10) Le Chanky-Chank Francais

This is another two-step number, sung by guitarist David Doucet. In addition to being a good song for dancing, it has a level of beauty brought by the spirited instrument playing of the band members. The fiddle playing is especially good, and Al Tharp's bass keeps things thumping along. There's not a whole lot that makes it stand out among the other two-steps, except for the sheer beauty of the music and the soulful vocals by David. It's a great song as a whole, and yet another strong addition to a strong album.

11) La Valse de La Poussiere

This is the only waltz on the album, and a beautiful one at that. It's a faster waltz than normal and has a romantic, dancehall feel to it. The group plays this waltz well, as they usually do with waltzes. All the instrument sounds are as excellent as they should be with musicians of this caliber. Michael's tender singing keeps the song intimate and lovely. Along with "Clifton's Night," this album offers quite a few romantic songs for those getaways in New Orleans with a loved one.

12) Tasso/McGee's Reel

The final song on the album is a medley of two boot-stompin' dance numbers. "Tasso" is a typical two-step, although not as fast as some. The fiddling is wild, raw and spirited, and the rest of the instruments keep up well. Again, Jimmy Breaux's accordion playing offers a rhythmic base for two-stepping. The singing by Michael is also great, as he sings in the traditional rural Cajun style. "McGee's Reel" is a whirlwind showcase of duel fiddling magic. Everything comes to a heady conclusion with the fast paced, breakneck fiddling that is sure to wear you out after a night of dancing. It's a great way to end the album.

Overall, I think this is one of the more enjoyable BeauSoleil albums (although they are all enjoyable). The mix of traditional two-step dance numbers and more innovative ballads, reels and Caribbean percussion themes keep the album fresh the whole way through. The increased use of English lyrics show that the band was starting to move beyond the traditional French sounds and keep their minds open to wherever their musical path led them. There is enough fast, enjoyable fiddling and accordion playing to keep the fans of BeauSoleil's reputation as a dance band happy, and those who enjoy the more romantic side can have their wishes fulfilled as well. All of these songs will bring a smile to your face and put you in a good mood, and that is what BeauSoleil does best. This album always makes me happy and keeps my feet tapping, so that is why I put it up alongside the very best of the rest of the BeauSoleil catalog.

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