Album review: Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys – “Grand Isle”

Originally published on MadeLoud, Apr 6, 2011

When people think of musical genres most likely to be vehicles for biting sociopolitical commentary, Contemporary Cajun probably ranks somewhere between surf rock and nü-polka. But when you’ve witnessed an endless stream of horrors and frustrations like the ones that have been thrown at coastal Louisiana in the past decade, even the most apolitical local artist can’t help but let the righteous indignation shine through. Taking their album title from one of the towns hardest hit by last summer’s BP oil spill (not to mention a smaller March 2011 spill that was barely reported on by the national media), Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys let it be known that they have the bayou’s back.

Grand Isle kicks off with a spacey, pulsating tone that serves as an announcement that this ain’t gonna be the Cajun music you hear in Popeye’s commercials. The opener “Danser san comprendre (Dancing Without Understanding)” is all about universality. The accordion, guitar and fiddle blaze away as Riley’s vocals shift from English to French and back. It’s an ingenious illustration of the song’s basic concept: you don’t have to speak the language to dig the vibe. Things veer even farther off the trad-Cajun path with “Chatterbox,” a garage-rock-flavored stomper driven by New Orleans weirdo Quintron and his trademark “Drum Buddy” percussion machine. The intoxicating “C’est l’heure pour changer (This is the Time for Change)” isn’t quite as outré, but it’s no less affecting with its gurgling organ riffs and buoyant chorus.

Whether they’re delving into classic swamp pop ballads like “Non, je ne regretted rien,” mixing in a touch of country-western on “Grand Isle” or going for a straight-up tear-jerker like “Au Revoir,” The Mamou Playboys conduct themselves like the two-plus-decade veterans they are. Calling in ringers like Quintron, piano-slinger Jon Cleary and producer C. C. Adcock doesn’t hurt either. Grand Isle surefootedly covers a lot of terrain in the course of its twelve tracks, but the album never loses focus on what’s at stake on the Gulf Coast.

Actually, the average Grand Isle listener might not even suspect there’s any social commentary going on here (although the oil-soaked sea bird on the album cover is a bit of a giveaway). Many of the lyrics are in French, and the music is upbeat enough to pass as a party disc. But listen closely and it becomes clear that the Playboys’ tributes to the places and faces of the Louisiana lowlands are more than celebratory – they’re downright defiant.

Recommended Tracks: “C’est l’heure pour changer,” “Danser san comprendre,” “Grand Isle”

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