This is an album, but it’s also a movie. It opens with a track called “In the beginning ... ” and widens out to incorporate everything in the musical and non-musical world. It also marks the 30th anniversary of Lo’Jo, a musical family based in Angers, France. This group has dedicated itself to uncovering connections between all the world’s musicks ... and this might just be their boldest statement yet.
The crucial entry point to this album turns out to be one of its strangest and least characteristic. Cut to the title track, an atmospheric piece featuring wailing violins and dinosaur noises. Who is that scat-singing with bandleader Denis Péan? Why, it’s everyone’s favorite avant-gardist Robert Wyatt! This is more than just a great Euro-cred move; Péan and Wyatt are kindred spirits, working the weird side of the street in search of the lost chords that keep the Earth spinning. When you bring on Robert Wyatt as a special guest, you’re throwing down a gauntlet: we’re here, we’re weird, get used to it.
Once you understand this, it is easier to comprehend the rest of what they’re doing here. Sometimes, as in the yearning “Alger”, they are bringing the Romany heat, with Péan as the creepy yet charismatic troubadour. The song thumps along, modulating through keys and rhythms like they’re trying for extra credit, but it is all held together with Péan’s urgent mutterings and cracked croons.
At other times, they try on the Kronos Quartet’s tuxedos at their most swashbuckling (“Comète Algébrique”), go all beat-box cabaret (“Lila”) or broken-down-carnival (“Zetwal”) on us, or blast out with some widescreen world music loveliness (“Tout Est Fragile”). Extra points on the latter track, by the way, for making full use of Yamina and Nadia Nid El Mourid, the sisters who provide much of the impetus behind the group’s strong North African vibe.
Lo’Jo also isn’t afraid to just try something that is directly expressed in the song’s title. “African Dub Crossing the Fantôms of an Opera” contains a number of puns, but also manages to encapsulate the spirit of the track. It’s heavily influenced by Saharan music, but is driven by a Jamaican sense of rhythmic deconstructed; gnawa melodies are taken apart and put back together, and Péan turns all gnomic while violins do shrieking and howling wind noises.
Perhaps it’s all just a movie to Lo’Jo, but they’re fully committed to every location. “Vientane” is the love scene, set perhaps in a bazaar café; “El Cabo Blanco” is the aftermath of that scene, with protagonists drowning in their sorrows; “Magnétik” is the chase scene through the deserted streets of Angers, with whipcrack drums standing in for gunshots.
By the time we reach the final scene, called “Au Début”, it’s all fallen apart in a beautiful way. Péan is declaiming at us, his voice dub-splintered into several parts. Richard Bourreau’s violin has multitracked itself into a weapon. The Nid El Mourid sisters are nowhere to be found, another mystery to be solved. We’re all alone again. The only way to survive is to start the album over and watch it again.