Louisiana’s freethinking rockers' wild and beautiful album now out on vinyl
A big hulk of a sound, once frozen in time, now busting out. A rumbling thing of the past, returning in all its glory to stampede through amps and grit and forgotten anthems, stomping merrily out of Louisiana.
Lost Bayou Ramblers have this beast by the tusks: They show how Louisiana’s oldest roots have major life and legs. Their raw, sparkling tunes span underground Cajun and Francophone traditional songs to their wild and wooly originals on Mammoth Waltz, now on heavy-weight vinyl (release: October 23, 2012).
With striking skill, the Ramblers have taken obscure echoes of the past and run them through effects, their own wandering musical sensibilities, and rock attitude featuring a characteristically diverse gang of musical contributors—Louisiana legend Dr. John; fiddling and a throatsinging cameo by Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano (“Bastille”); and vocals by French star and Oscar-nominated singer Nora Arnezeder and by actress and chanteuse Scarlett Johansson—the album is rollicking and rough, sweet and intriguing by turns.
“We’re exploring all the possibilities, exploring our options,” explains singer and guitarist Cavan Carruth. “It keeps our music relevant, and it keeps us interested. It also keeps the crowd interested.”
“I feel more and more, the more I listen to the old stuff that really intrigues me, that if they had the technology we have today, they’d be even further out than we are,” exclaims singer, songwriter, and fiddler Louis Michot with a smile. “They were blending all the pop styles they heard with their grandparents’ French ballads. It was all nursery rhymes and rock and roll.”
A life-long musician and purveyor of local lore, Michot writes and belts songs with a keen, quirky sense for bricolage, for putting old, odd pieces together to make something beautiful.
He found the music and words for the opening anthem, “Le Réveil de la Louisiane” (with support from Dr. John), thanks to an elder substitute Louisiana French teacher. To The Ramblers’ knowledge, this is the first time the song has ever been recorded. Like the album’s dancing namesake, Michot, Carruth, and the Ramblers put the disparate together: the title references both the Cajun hotspot of Mamou—“mammoth” in French—and the massive tundra creatures.
Michot has plenty of other striking remnants and suggestive hints to work with. Louis grew up fiddling, along with his brother, accordion builder, and Rambler accordionist Andre, with Les Freres Michot, a family band with firm ties to tradition. Carruth and drummer Paul Etheredge (ex-Young Heart Attack) have added in their rough‘n‘tumble, rock‘n‘roll sensibilities to create the double-time waltzes, raunchy notes of vintage rock, and a curious rhythmic sense that turns two chords into a deep groove. “Croche,” named for this musical Cajun sweet spot, is a shout out waltz to this unexpected mix.
“‘Croche’ is a super funky waltz, inspired by old, fast rhythms, and it really gets at why we love playing Cajun music: It’s so funky and unique,” explains Michot. “It’s croche; it’s different. Even if it’s just two chords, there’s complexity in it. You can’t just play it like a country song. The changes of the song come when you least expect them. It’s like it’s improvised but it’s together. It sounds like you’re interpreting things, but that’s how the song goes.”
How the song goes is often open to new sounds, be they intensely rock or seriously electronic (like the unexpected yet harmonious “Coteau Guidry Reprise,” an electronic rethink of Michot’s earthy and spontaneous “Coteau Guidry”). Taking cues from everyone from producer Daniel Lanois (whose haunting French-Canadian ballad “O Marie” comes wonderfully unhinged in the Ramblers’ hands) to producer Korey Richey (currently working with Arcade Fire on their upcoming album), the group’s open-ended feel for the possibilities hidden in the music has won them a Grammy nomination and spots in soundtracks like this year’s Sundance darling Beasts of the Southern Wild.
“I always feel like the Cajun music I hear from the 1950s has that old rock and roll, that raw attitude,” explains Carruth. “It’s dirty, raucous, meant for clubs and dance halls. They were on the verge of burning down the joint they were playing in. We’re an extension of that. We’re saying, hell, let’s use that. Let’s do our own thing with it.”