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LA BOTTINE SOURIANTE - "La Mistrine" - Musicor - MPCD2038

If you were lucky enough to catch La Bottine on their recent trip to Europe, you'll know what they're all about. You'll probably already have the album. If you haven't come across La Bottine before, you'll have absolutely no idea what they're like because they're like nothing else anywhere! To quote Douglas Adams, "Expect the unexpected"!

La Bottine Souriante ("The Smiling Bootee") are a Quebecois phenomenon which has been on the go for about 15 years. This must be about their tenth album - they have a few on Green Linnet from the eighties, one on Rounder Records, and several on the Musicor label in Quebec. Most of the albums are now available in Europe through ADA Distribution, but some are still hard to find.

So what do they do? Well, pretty much anything. There's a core of accordion and fiddle in the French-Canadian tradition, Quebecois step-dancing instead of percussion long before Open House thought of it, and plenty of fine male voices singing in the Quebec dialect of French. Add an occasional brass section, rhythm section, Jew's harp, blues harp, and an enormous amount of imagination, and you have everything from straight trad to big band including a few fusions and confusions which nobody else has got away with yet. The material on this album is two parts songs to one part instrumentals, but the songs are full of instrumental breaks and catchy intros and outros. "La Tourtiere", for example, is a nonsense song-cum-recipe with a very trad-sounding gigue in the middle.

Nonsense songs are something of a speciality with La Bottine, as are wry and irreverent songs in the traditional idiom. The traditional motifs of comic love-affairs, drunkenness and idleness, and tricking the devil all crop up once or twice, and the story-lines are suitably improbable, but most of the songs are actually contemporary. The overall effect is reminiscent of De Dannan on "Star-Spangled Molly" or "Half-Set in Harlem": great singing, plenty of instrumental depth, spot-on arrangements and a wide range of styles from old-fashioned trad to avant-garde folk. All the singing is in Canadian French, of course, but the excellent sleeve notes give most of the lyrics.

On the instrumental front, La Bottine field four sets of reels and a waltz. Two of the reel sets are Irish in origin, although this is not immediately obvious, especially in the opening track which is based on a Michael Coleman tune but has been transformed into the "Flying Saucer Reel". If you're looking for a taster, this is a good track to try. The other Irish track is helpfully entitled "The Irish Reel", but this too has changed quite a bit since it left Galway Bay. The other two reels are pure Quebecois, "Reel de la Main Blanche" being an old tune reworked and "Reel de la Sauvagine" being a composition by La Bottine's fiddler Michel Bordeleau. Both are great tunes, and they are joined by a wonderful waltz from the pen of Montreal melodeon maestro Philippe Bruneau.

Other reviewers might use adjectives like essential, ground-breaking, funky, raunchy, or even gobsmacking. I wouldn't argue with any of those: this is a superb recording from start to finish, and I think everybody should go out and buy it. The only downside is that the CD only lasts 43 minutes. However, if that's not enough you can always buy one of La Bottine's other recordings as well. In fact, you may find yourself collecting the entire set.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 18 of The Living Tradition magazine.