Tuesday, October 05, 2004


Album Review: BeauSoleil "L'Echo"

*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 was in a mall in Phoenix, Arizona when I bought this album. I was looking in a bargain bin in a record store, hoping that I'd find something. I wasn't specifically looking for BeauSoleil, just anything I'd heard of and might want to buy. It just so happened that I found L'Echo in one of those bargain bins. All it cost me was $5, but the quality of the music makes it worth much more.

This album is actually a theme album and was released in 1994. BeauSoleil had been doing several albums of mostly non-traditional (or at least non-traditional sounding) music for a few years. With this album, they decided to go back to their roots and rediscover some of the older music performed by the greats. Most of these songs were long forgotten until Michael decided to put them to use. The result of this experiment is a great album of music that sounds as fresh and new as anything, but that has roots going back to the first Cajun music records.

This album is packed with two things: fast dance numbers and lovely waltzes. There are a few songs that are different, but not too many. The amazing thing is that, as old as these songs are, BeauSoleil makes them sound new. If you weren't told that these were traditional songs, you'd think Michael wrote them yesterday. In fact, he didn't write any of these songs (not the tunes, anyway. I think he wrote some of the lyrics). Here's my assessment of the songs they've put on this super album:

1) Chez Denouse McGee

Denouse McGee is actually Dennis McGee, the famous old-time Cajun fiddler who greatly influenced lead singer and fiddler Michael Doucet. This rollicking two-step number is a tribute to the times Michael spent with Dennis and his wife. This is one of the most joyous and danceable songs on the album, and I think it's an excellent way to start the album. The fiddling is key here as one can expect on a Dennis McGee tune. L'Echo is definitely one of BeauSoleil's more fiddle-focused albums, giving it a more traditional and European feel.

2) O Bebe Waltz

This is the first of many waltzes on the album, and it definitely has the most "swing" of any of them. It's a fast, steady dance number with heavy accordion, mournful fiddle and a touch of steel guitar to spice things up. The rhythm section is very strong and propels the other instruments to a romantic and passionate groove.

3) Freeman's Zydeco

This isn't a Zydeco song like Clifton Chenier would make. It does have a bit of African funkiness to it though as it's not a waltz or two-step. It has a touch of blues, but mostly it's a lazy groove played by Michael's swinging, lyrical fiddle and Jimmy Breaux's rhythmic accordion. The lyrics, written by Michael, tell about Freeman Fontenot and his big Zydeco parties. This song is a good change up from the two-step and waltz repertoire, and highlights the African sounds of the French Creoles and their own traditional music that later became Zydeco.

4) Quel Espoir

This is a very European, jazzy-sounding fiddle song. It sounds a lot like something you'd hear in a 1920s club in urban America. The music is less folky than usual, less rhythmic. The liner notes say that it was performed during the string band era of Cajun music, and the heavy use of the fiddle reflects that. Vibes by Billy Ware add a special touch, and the rhythmic drumming and guitar strumming give the song a different dance beat than most other Cajun songs. It's definitely a different sound for the band, adding a more elegant sound in contrast to the dancehall two-steps.

5) La Ville Des Manteau

As the liner notes explain, this song probably comes from the continental French folk tradition. It does have a ballad feel to it, and the singing is more appropriate for that format instead of the usual Cajun songs of love and hard times. The liner notes say that this song was not really made for dancing in its original presentation, and indeed it is not a dance song. It's more of a folky, lyric-oriented style. The music is generally good. Fiddle, accordion and guitar are all as strong as ever, but not especially outstanding compared to some of the other songs. What is important to this song is the singing and the feelings expressed by the lyrics and the sounds of the singers' voices.

6) Lizzette La Douce

This is another string band-era song, and it's very fast and wild and made for dancing. On top of the usual fiddle and accordion presentation, there is a bit of what sounds like mandolin added making for a nice twangy string sound. As one would expect from a string band song, the fiddle is the main star here. This song has a very old-fashioned jazz feeling and works very well for anyone who wishes to dance. It's just an overall good, happy song.

7) Evangeline Waltz

This is one of the sadder, slower waltzes on the album. Musically, it's a typical BeauSoleil waltz (with maybe a bit more of the Blues than usual). What makes the song stand out is the very mournful and aching singing by Michael (which is echoed by his sad fiddle playing) and the occasional harmony singing of some of the other band members. The harmonies really add to the power of the lyrics. This isn't the best waltz on the album, but it's not a weak one either. It does successfully express the painful emotions of the lyrics through the music, even though those lyrics haven't been translated in the liner notes. One does not need to understand French to feel the sadness in Michael's voice.

8) One Iota

This song is your typical fast, bouncing Louisiana two-step and it's excellent! The music is fun and groovy, puts you in a good mood, and makes you want to get up and dance. The fiddling and accordion playing are both as good as ever and drive the music along at a good pace. Michael's singing has rarely been better as he screams out the lyrics in the high Cajun vocal style. This is one of the best songs on the album and probably one of my favorite BeauSoleil songs ever. It's just a plain good time for everyone.

9) Joe Falcon's Waltz

This is a faster waltz, and not really sad or romantic. I'm not quite sure what the lyrics mean, so I can't really say what emotions the song is supposed to express. I think the song is being sung to a loved one. Michael sings in a high, wailing shout much like he does on "One Iota" and other songs. Musically, the song is a bit faster than a typical Cajun waltz but not too much. Basically, it trots on at a steady rhythm. This is a good song, not the most outstanding but still a very strong example of a BeauSoleil waltz.

10) La Cravate a Ziggy Zag

This is a hurricane-speed two-step with fingers flying all over the fiddle and accordion. It is a children's song with tongue-twisting lyrics that get faster, longer and more complicated as the song goes on. The singing itself, done by Michael, is sort of like a fiddle as it is smooth in parts and shuffling in others. As always, this two-step is great for dancing and shaking all around. It's a humorous song, very fun and silly, and a light break from the serious tone of the waltzes.

11) Chere Petite Blond

This is one of the slower songs on the album, but not really a waltz. It does however sound a lot like a Blues song with the mournful lyrics and slow, tear-jerking fiddle playing. This is an example of how the Cajun fiddle tradition can really evoke human emotions and echo the lyrical content of the song. Michael always does a good job of letting the fiddle tell what the person in the song is feeling. Even though this is a sad song, it's also one of the better songs on the album because of how it goes straight to the heart of the listener.

12) Cajun Crawl

Yet another example of the Cajun string band tradition, this song comes from the repertoire of the legendary Hackberry Ramblers. It's mostly an instrumental, with a very short section of lyrics in the middle. Billy Ware's percussion adds a nice syncopated touch to the song, and the rhythm section is as good as always. As with the other string band songs, Michael's fiddling is the strong point. Michael takes the general theme of the song and builds upon it by playing it in different keys and letting the instrument swing and groove like only a violin can. This tune has a bit more of a rhythmic shuffle to it as it "crawls" to its conclusion. This is probably one of the best songs for Michael's fiddling on the whole album.

13) Angelas' Waltz

This is one of my absolute favorite songs on the album - or any BeauSoleil album. There are only three instruments played here: the fiddle, the accordion, and a bit of triangle if my ears are correct. This is a very traditional sounding song, and one of the most traditional BeauSoleil has ever done in my opinion. I love the way the fiddle and accordion work together and complement each other. There's something magical about the purity of only two instruments playing a tune. In contrast to the other songs, Michael sings short little verses interspersed with the waltz, which I think is a bit of a traditional way of doing Cajun songs. I could be wrong, but that's my understanding of the traditions. Musically, this is a semi-slow waltz with a heavy influence of blues. It has a definite groove and swing to it and it's very entertaining to listen to, breathtaking and powerful.

14) Hip Et Ti-Yeaux

This is one of the more popular traditional Cajun songs, and the liner notes indicate that it is a "cowboy song." That certainly seems to be the case as there's a bit of a twangy, country feel to it. The fiddling is quite unique and attention-grabbing, and the accordion is prominent and quite enjoyable. David Doucet sings lead, backed by the higher voice of Michael, and that combination works very well. This is a very fun song with a lot of attitude. The instrument playing is high quality and a little more improvisational than on most of the previous songs.

15) La Belle De Bayou Teche

This is yet another waltz on an album packed full of them. It's a bit slower, and has a romantic feel to it. As Michael says in the liner notes, this is a "rare happy song" in the Cajun waltz tradition. It's quite tender and warm, and ends the album in a quiet and soft way. Michael's singing is as gorgeous as ever, and you can sense the love he's expressing. This is one of the most beautiful songs on the album and just as good as all the other waltzes.

In summary, this is a great album of traditional music made by a band that both honors and updates the traditions. A first-time listener of BeauSoleil could definitely do good by listening to this album and hearing where Cajun music has been before hearing where BeauSoleil has taken it on the other albums. Those who are already familiar with the band should also listen because BeauSoleil is at the top of their game on these songs, and as enjoyable as they are to listen to they also give a history of who and what Cajun music is. Come for the history, but stay for the exquisite touch put on these old songs by a band that understands the traditions of their style of music and does its best to keep them alive and keep them fun.

I'm very happy with this album, and not just because I bought it inexpensively. I think it's a great showcase of the traditional styles of Cajun music (that was indeed the goal Michael and the group had in making it) and it obviously shows that Cajun music is not all two-steps and waltzes. Cajun music has always changed and evolved, sometimes sticking with the popular styles and other times reverting back to what works and what is traditional. No matter what style the songs are, the common thread of Cajun music is the richness of the emotions expressed.

French, to me anyway, is a very expressive language and that is partly why Cajun music is so evocative even with people who don't speak French at all. Cajun music is also expressive because of the ability of Cajun musicians to make their instruments mirror the feelings portrayed through the lyrics. The Cajun violin is almost another singer in the band. Its lonely and joyous tones have an immediate impact on the person listening, and that impact is universal. This, I think, is why Cajun music has become so popular and so adored by audiences far outside Louisiana. Cajun music comes from a real culture, and it is played by real people who are expressing real emotions and telling real stories. At some level, Cajun music is music at its purest and most honest, and that needs no translation.

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