Steve Riley &
the Mamou Playboys,
(Rounder, 2001)

With Happytown Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys bring Cajun music into the modern age. The album includes traditional, toe-tapping songs as well as others that blend the traditional with elements of alternative rock, grunge and modern blues. It's an intriguing mix, but did take a while to grow on me, particularly since the first two tracks on the CD are very traditional and I'd expected more of the same; the more experimental songs startled me after that.

It's worth giving Happytown such a chance, though. "Seems to Me" is an exciting use of some Cajun instruments and motifs in a rock song. I've long loved the sound of a fiddle with a rock bass and drum, and after hearing this album I'll seek out similar combinations with an accordion. It ends with a sample from one of Alan Lomax's field recordings from 1934, an effective way to emphasize the roots of the music, even in this 21st-century song.

Most of the singing is in French, so I needed to read the translations before I saw how well the music goes with the lyrics. "Gros Jean/Big John" is an example, where the dark and grungy sound is a perfect match with the gloomy lyrics of unfaithfulness and murder, a musical setting of a poem written by a slave named Pierre in the 1860s.

"Heat Lightning" and "La Pointe aux Chênes/Oak Point" are sung in a mixture of French and English. They include saxophones with their solid rock and Cajun elements, and both are closer to rock than to traditional Cajun music.

The more traditional pieces are excellent as well. "Pochè Bridge" is a rock-updated Cajun tune, and "Mes Enfants/My Children" more traditional, but anchored with a rocklike bass. "Creole Stomp [Happytown]" and the following "Big Boy Waltz" are very traditional indeed, and great examples of Cajun music. Fiddle fans will love the brilliant fiddling in the first song.

Happytown has the good liner notes I've found typical of Rounder, and they were a great help to me in appreciating this CD. I find that understanding something of the history of the music and musicians helps me to enjoy the music, and that was true here. Both the notes themselves and the translation of the French lyrics were welcome!

Happytown is a genre-busting album, and whether or not one likes a genre-buster is idiosyncratic. I liked this one much more after listening to it a number of times (and reading the notes) than I had on my first hearing. To like it, though, you have to be willing to have your preconceptions challenged! If you are, this album is worth it. It brings Cajun music into the 21st century -- as is its goal -- to good but sometimes startling effect.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]
Rambles: 17 November 2001

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