When Cajun music gets progressive—and we’re thinking of a couple landmark albums that the Bluerunners and Steve Riley made in the late ’90s—that usually means adding some rock influence and allowing for studio possibilities. By that standard, the Lost Bayou Ramblers’ latest is clear off the charts: Not since Dr. John’s storied debut—which coincidentally also included a piece based on the Kalenda legend—have Louisiana traditions been so thoroughly psychedelicized.
The Ramblers’ wildest experiments here are still grounded in tradition. The title track, for instance, has a few precedents: The Kalenda was once an outlawed dance done by slaves on Congo Square; later it became a well-known Cajun tune about a flirtatious woman. Here it’s turned into a dreamscape that evokes both: Cajun fiddles drift in and out of African percussion as a looped vocal turns the original lyric into a mantra; the overdubbed heartbeat and spoken old-man voice add to the sense of deep memory. That’s followed by “Aloha Golden Meadow,” a Hawaiian guitar piece that’s made spectral by the echoes and overdubbed synths; it’s the sound of all those memories drifting off into the ether.
The rest of the album isn’t quite that radical, but the soundscapes surprise even when the band is playing it relatively straight. “Sabine Turnaround” opens the album with accordion and triangle, and the rock elements are introduced gradually until it gets fully electric. On “Rice Pump” a fiddle tune is driven along by wild punkish drumming and a deep fuzz bassline played on a synth; it’s still a dance tune but a far more raucous one. There are also two waltzes, one (“Cote Clair Waltz”) done fairly traditionally, the other (“La Valse de Balfa”) turned—via amplified fiddle, gritty slide guitar and an aggressive bridge section—into something approaching arena rock. Not every experiment here works—to these ears, “Freetown Crawl/Fightin’ville Brawl” tries a little too hard to invent Cajun electronica—but small missteps are inevitable when you’re opening up so much new territory.