Graded on a Curve: Michot’s Melody Makers, Blood Moon

If you know Louis Michot’s band the Lost Bayou Ramblers, then you’ve surely soaked up how his approach to Cajun traditions eschews the antiquated or tame. Well, after winning a Grammy for Kalenda, the Ramblers are on hiatus, but Blood Moon, the new record from Michot’s Melody Makers, makes it clear the fiddler and vocalist has no interest in slowing down. Persevering in the objective of imbuing Cajun and Creole goodness with contempo energy and elements not associated with the genre, the digital and CD have been out since September, and the vinyl arrives on November 9, all courtesy of Sinking City Records.

I mention the Lost Bayou Ramblers for context, but really, you needn’t know that band’s music to get into Blood Moon; all that’s required is an appreciation of Cajun roots and a desire to hear them handled as a vital, sturdy sound to be embraced rather than as a precious curio under glass. The Melody Makers, which in addition to Michot features his Ramblers bandmates Bryan Webre on bass and drum pad and Kirkland Middleton on drums and drum pad, plus Mark Bingham on electric guitar, are extenders of an admirable sort.

If Bingham’s name rings a bell, it might be through the New Orleans-based studios The Boiler Room and Piety Street Recording, both of which he operated, or for his numerous and varied production credits (from Flat Duo Jets to Marianne Faithfull to Peter Stempfel to Andrei Codrescu), or for his collaborations, which include Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders of the Fugs, R.E.M., and an extensive association with Hal Wilner.

But if Bingham’s diversity of background helps to situate the Melody Makers as an endeavor of promise, he’s only part of the equation. It’s Michot direction of the combo that really assuages any worries over those drum pads and a (non-quotational) interest in sampling. Combine this relative newness with tunes that in some cases are a century (or more) old, all sung in Louisiana French and co-produced by Michot with LCD Soundsystem’s Korey Richey, and you have a record that could’ve easily been alternately titled (a la the ’60s folk music boom) Cajun/Creole Louisiana Now!

A nice way to get a handle on the Melody Makers’ thing is to contrast the version of “Two-Step de Ste Marie” that opens this record with the one found on Elevés à Pilette by Les Frères Michot, the Cajun family band of which Louis was a bass-playing member (though not on the 1987 LP). The song isn’t so much updated as transformed, with the Melody Makers lacking Les Frères’ accordion grind and instead diving into a tech flow that’s squishy, squirty and rhythmically springy as Michot retains the vocals delivery in French from the ’87 version and bears down on its fiddle line.

The substantial bass distortion in “Grand Marais” will effectively weed out folks demanding a semblance of the orthodox, though Michot, who has occasionally been ascribed as exploring avenues in line with a punk aesthetic, is just as clearly disinterested in form destruction. It’s a point that’s nicely driven home by “Dans Les Pins,” the Melody Makers’ French language reading of the warhorse “In the Pines.”

Placing it next in the song order registers as strategic (but likely not intentionally so), as it just might reorient those initially turned off or taken aback by the raw punch of “Grand Marais.” The question will be how they handle the boisterous and concise barreling-forth of “Allons Tous Boire Un Coup.” Of course, I’m possibly conjuring up a group of listeners with requirements of “authenticity”: the reality is more probably a dominant populace whose notion of old-time Louisiana music is a surface level knowledge of brass bands and accordion groups (the latter maybe augmented with washboard).

Significantly, with one notable exception the Melody Makers lack an accordionist. On “Blues de Neg Francais” Colby Leger guests on the instrument, and it’s the most immediately classically Cajun tune of Blood Moon’s bunch. Its arrival doesn’t disrupt the flow of what preceded, but rather establishes the groups’ bona fides prior to offering the set’s deepest plunge into the contemporary.

In “La Lune Est Croche,” a bed of sample loops illuminates comfort with electronica as the rhythm is mildly reminiscent of hip-hop. Bluntly, the likelihood of artistic disaster is pretty damned high, but instead of strained ambition or pedestrian wholesale pilfering, it connects as the byproduct of musicians who’ve spent their lives absorbing and enjoying a plethora of styles, with the collective unified in putting a unique stamp on the Creole-Celtic-Afro-French fiddle tradition.

After “La Lune Est Croche,” Blood Moon’s last two tracks are a sweet wrap-up, “Coyote Sur Les Chemins” infused with more fuzz bass and heavy bow, while finale “La Danse Carrée” is well-described as a showcase in fiddle skills that never gets bogged down in mere athleticism, essentially because, per a nifty recent interview with Michot at Popmatters, the piece is an “old Evangeline Parish call dance.”

It’s a fine example of the Melody Makers’ desire to keep tradition alive through contemporary verve and inventiveness. The Lost Bayou Ramblers might be on hiatus, but with Blood Moon Louis Michot is on a roll.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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