Thursday, January 29, 2009

Album Review: BeauSoleil "Alligator Purse"

The members of BeauSoleil are at a point in their career where they can do whatever they please musically. Of course, they'll never give up their traditional Cajun roots, but each new album offers something different, something new, something exciting. That was true for their last studio album, Gitane Cajun, and it's true for their latest, Alligator Purse.

This album has roots in a Hurricane Katrina benefit that bandleader Michael Doucet participated in. He reconnected with producer Michael Pillot and decided to use Mr. Pillot as the producer on BeauSoleil's next adventure. A group of famous folks from the Katrina benefit tagged along - people such as Natalie Merchant, Garth Hudson and John Sebastian.

When I first read the press release for Alligator Purse, I was worried that this would be a "guest artist" album. They have certainly had guests on other albums, so this is nothing new. I need not have worried, because most of the guest spots work well with the BeauSoleil sound. However, I'm not a huge fan of Garth Hudson's organ playing on "I Spent All My Money Loving You." It's too jarring and out-of-place.

What kind of album is Alligator Purse? It's a very fun album! The first four songs are all fast-paced and filled with great playing and singing. The albums kicks off with a traditional reel, "Reel Cajun/451 North St. Joseph St." New member Mitch Reed joins Michael Doucet with a second fiddle, and the fiddles lead the way on this whirlwind of a tune. I don't recall ever hearing Michael play so fast. Michael keeps up the great fiddling on the next song, "Rouler Et Tourner," a Cajun cover of blues song "Rollin' and Tumblin.'" There isn't much accordion on this one, but the fiddle playing is good and bluesy. Michael also sings very well on "Rouler." He's always done the blues well, and I'm glad he put this song on the album.

"Carriere Zydeco" is an instrumental, and a splendid one at that. The Creole influence comes out, and once again the fiddling takes the prize. Accordionist Jimmy Breaux gets to finally be heard with the rest of the music, and drummer Tommy Alesi also shines. I really enjoy this cut, and I wish they had put more like it on the album.

"Little Darlin'" features a guest vocal from Natalie Merchant on a genuine bluegrass song. This may be a BeauSoleil first! If you think BeauSoleil would do bluegrass well, you'd be proven right by this song. Everyone gets a solo here, which keeps the song rooted in the BeauSoleil tradition. "Marie" slows things down before they spin out of control, and features lead accordion by the always-wonderful Jimmy Breaux and some good sax playing too.

After a couple slower numbers, "Bosco Stomp" brings back the dancing with a very famous Cajun number. David gets his only singing appearance here, and makes the most of it with a high-pitched wail. "Theogene Creole" is reminiscent of other BeauSoleil Caribbean-style songs. Michael took the lyrics and melody from a field recording and fancied them up.

After the halfway point, the album gets away from Cajun and puts BeauSoleil into unfamiliar territory. "Les Oignions" has a sound straight out of New Orleans with jazzy trumpet and call-and-response vocals. "The Problem" is a J.J. Cale song and is pretty straightforward except for the solos by fiddle, accordion and guitar. Finally, "Valse A Thomas Ardoin" closes the album with a very traditional accordion-and-fiddle waltz originally by the legendary Amede Ardoin. Michael has done these traditional-sounding Ardoin songs on his solo albums, but not on a BeauSoleil release - until now.

When I think about it, this album really follows the footsteps of the previous Gitane Cajun. It features many authentic Cajun tunes, but mixes in some newer, non-Cajun tracks. There's a little of this for the traditionalists, and a little of that for everyone else. I've noticed that Jimmy's accordion isn't used quite as much as it used to be. Perhaps that's due to Michael's status as the leader of the group. As much as I like Michael's fiddling, I wish the accordion could be featured more prominently as in the band's earlier days. I have definitely noticed the presence of new member Mitch Reed. He has a style of bass playing different from Al Tharp - thicker and stronger. This is especially evident on "Carriere Zydeco." He's also a wonderful fiddle player (and a true Cajun), and brings the two-fiddle style to more of the songs than in the past.

On Alligator Purse, I definitely prefer the more traditional songs. The more mainstream songs are fairly good, but not as good as a two-step done by the masters. I did like the bluegrass number, but "I Spent All My Money Lovin' You" and "The Problem" aren't, to coin a term, BeauSoleil-ey enough for me. My favorite tracks here are "Reel Cajun," "Rouler Et Tourner," "Carriere Zydeco" (the first part of the album is stellar), "Bosco Stomp," "Theogene Creole" and "Les Oignons."

BeauSoleil keeps rocking after more than 30 years and continues to put out strong albums. If I could send the band a message, I'd tell them to keep up the good work and to put more songs like "Carriere Zydeco" on the next album!

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