Thursday, October 07, 2004

ALBUM REVIEW: BEAUSOLEIL "THE BEST OF BEAUSOLEIL"

Album Review: BeauSoleil "The Best of BeauSoleil"

*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.*

Although this album is titled "The Best of BeauSoleil," I'd like to point out that the songs here are only the best of one record label, Arhoolie. Beausoleil recorded on Arhoolie for much of the 1980s - a good portion of their career. Their Arhoolie years were their formative years, the time when they made a real name for themselves in the Cajun music world. This album was released in 1997 to show the best of what they did during this earlier era with Arhoolie.

Any "best of" collection will always be subjective (although I'm pretty sure that Michael Doucet himself helped pick these songs out for the album). There is no doubt in my mind, though, that every one of these songs is great. They range from the most traditional Cajun waltz to some of Beausoleil's more modern-sounding hits (one you might recognize is "Hot Chili Mama," which was used in a Maalox commercial). Beausoleil's trademark humor is used throughout, although many songs are only funny when you read the translations provided in the liner notes.

Those who know Beausoleil mostly from their very adventurous albums in the 1990s will be surprised by these earlier songs. Even when they're being innovative, the band members play the music in a much more traditional way than what they're playing now (for example, their Cajunization album). This is the stuff BeauSoleil played when making music was just a hobby for them, before they went professional and started touring around the world.

This album is heavy on the waltzes and ballads. Although they are a little slower than the bayou rockin' songs that made the group popular, they are of a high quality. These songs should put to rest any doubt that Beausoleil can actually play good traditional Cajun. Michael's fiddling talents are apparent on many of these slower songs. He plays as well on the waltzes and slower numbers as he does on the two-steps and Zydeco songs.

When listening to some of these songs, the suggested atmosphere (for me, anyway) is that of a group of musician friends gathered around a campfire, singing the songs of their ancestors. Of the slower songs, my favorites are "Leger's Chase," "Chanson D'Acadie," "Chez Varise Connor," "La Valse Du Vacher" and "Le Valse Des Jonglemonts."

"Leger's Chase," otherwise known as the Mardi Gras song, is a darker fiddle piece. I must say that I was surprised that a song called "The Mardi Gras Song" is slower than one would expect. However, keep in mind that the Cajun Mardi Gras tradition is different than the New Orleans party we know as Mardi Gras. The emphasis is on community celebration and tradition rather than getting drunk. "La Valse Du Vacher" (The Cowboy Song) does indeed sound like a song one would hear "on the range." I doubt the cowboys would sing it in French, but the Western theme is still pretty apparent. Another slightly Country-sounding song is "Chez Varise Connor," a fiddle tune with a twangy, folky feel.

Some of the songs are very high-spirited and enjoyable to listen to. Very few of them are in the current Beausoleil style, but they are still fun nonetheless. My favorites of these type are "Parlez-Nous a Boire," "J'ai Ete Au Zydeco," "Courtableau," "Grand Mallet," "Je Veux Me Marier," "Le Bozo Two-Step," "La Chanson De Cinquante Sous," and "Hot Chili Mama."

"Parlez-Nous," "Courtableau" and "Hot Chili Mama" are especially good, I think. "Courtableau" features some great fiddling, and I'm always a sucker for great fiddling. Also, David sings pretty fast, making the song sound humorous. "Parlez-Nous" is a drinking song with a lot of rhythmic hand clapping and tight fiddle. It's very easy to sing along to and very fun. "Hot Chili Mama" is a wild ode to hot peppers and fiery love. It has a sort of Zydeco feel to it, and apparently it was used in an antacid commercial during the late '80s. I vaguely remember hearing the song during those commercials. Michael's singing has never been more fun and humorous, and it marks a slight change in how Michael was writing his songs and music in the latter part of the group's Arhoolie era.

Two songs, "Bee's Blues" and "Creole French Blues," are accordion songs by Michael. I didn't know he could play the accordion, but apparently he can. These are two great, soulful, oldtime-sounding songs from the Creole tradition. I find them very interesting and enjoyable to listen to, especially because Michael normally plays the violin.

Overall, I think this is a great album. It is not my favorite BeauSoleil album, but I think it's an excellent introduction to the Cajun music tradition. A quick listen to some of these songs in contrast to other Cajun songs from the 1920s and 1930s would highlight the drastic differences between BeauSoleil's updated style and the more traditional style. Even though these are older songs, Michael and the gang play them with a fresh, open-minded approach. They are intimate, lighthearted, sincere, entertaining, acoustic songs. I especially like the sense of simplicity and intimacy that the album conveys through the acoustic, stripped-down arrangements that adhere to the timeless Cajun way of performing.

I wouldn't say that all of these songs represent the very best of the band's overall career, but I do think they illustrate the diversity of the band's talents. Instead of the hit songs, what we get here is a collection of songs that probably best define their early career as far as what songs they would typically play and the typical style in which the band played them. If you want to know what kinds of songs BeauSoleil made in their formative era, this is the album to buy.

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