Bayou Ruler

Steve Riley And The Mamou Playboys

Rounder Records, 1998

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


I've not heard a lot of zydeco music in my life, except for some scatterings of it on albums like Paul Simon's Graceland or some work by Buckwheat Zydeco. It's not that I don't like it, it's just that I've never really cultivated a taste for it. (Keep in mind, I'm a native Chicagoan, who has rarely ventured outside of his stomping grounds; travelling to New Orleans - though it might be a beautiful city - would be the equivalent of heading into the jungle for this timid white boy.)

At this point, a package from Rounder containing Bayou Ruler, the latest release from Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, arrives in the mailbox, giving me a chance to broaden my musical taste buds a bit. While the band isn't zydeco in its purest form, this album still has enough quality performances on it to satisfy both the purist and the novice.

Ultimately, it is the music on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Bayou Ruler that will be the key to its clicking with the listeners - that is, unless you can speak French. Most of the vocals on the disc are done in French - however, this almost seems to add the mystery of zydeco music for me. It almost makes it seem dark while maintaining a party atmosphere in the playing. A few songs are performed in English - including "Let Me Know," which appears in French early on the album as "Laisse-moi connaîre".

Riley and crew mix in elements of rock ("Let Me Know", "All For The Better") and blues ("Mama Told Papa") into their music, creating a mix that should draw the interest of many a listener. (And although I honestly don't think I'd know true Cajun music if it came up to me and introduced itself, I can hear traces of it in the music.) However, am I the only one to think that "Je suis pas un couillon" sounds like music to a game or talk show? The uptempo beat of almost all the songs and the inclusion of accordion signals that Riley hasn't forgotten the roots of zydeco, which he continually pays tribute to.

There are touches of humor contained in Bayou Ruler as well, such as the constant spoken claims to the "throne" on "King Zydeco" (I swear, one of the voices sounds like it was done by Droopy Dog). Even in the French, Riley and crew throw enough humor in to balance some of the more dark lyrics. Sample lyric from the translation of "J'ai été-z-au bal": "There are some who like brunettes / And others who like blondes. / I'm not like that. / I like both." (Can I get an "Amen" here?)

So it sounds like everything on Bayou Ruler is great? Well, not so fast there. Besides allowing yourself enough time with the disc to develop an appreciation for this genre, the album itself takes some time to really discover the nuances of. You really won't begin to develop a true appreciation for the music contained herein with one listen - and I doubt many people will have the time or patience to really trying to crawl under this album's skin.

The truth is, zydeco isn't the easiest form of music to develop an appreciation for. (I think the hardest is opera - and, frankly, I can't stand opera.) Riley and the Mamou Playboys do an admirable effort in trying to win over a new crowd with Bayou Ruler, and it is worth checking out if you're just curious about the genre. But if you're a diehard zydeco fan, you might not warm up to the merging of styles and cultures.

Rating: B-

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rounder Records, and is used for informational purposes only.