This has just about all the elements needed to be a great world music album: international status, as Lo’Jo is based in France; multi-cultural cred, with its French Algerian singers and indefinable international groove—not to mention the special guest appearance by an African brass band; passion and grit; the fact that it is a live album and therefore the group can prove it live (yes, a rockist trope, but it’s my favorite one). And it’s good, well-executed, moody/ecstatic, all that stuff. However, I’m not convinced that it’s anything more than good.
The public face of this group are Nadia Nid El Mourid and Yasmina Nid El Mourid, the photogenic and sexy singers (Yasmina also plays saxophone and percussion), but its primus mobile is Denis Péan, the songwriter/keyboard player/singer. His lyrics probably make a lot more sense if you understand French, which I will just admit right now that I don’t, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt based on the very poetic snippets quoted in the liner notes—stuff like “I asked life for its residue of glory / That beautiful and irreversible thing” is not stuff that can be taken lightly. But it’s pretty tough to judge something like that, so we’ll just go with how it sounds.
It sounds really good. There’s a definite reggae influence here, creeping into many of the songs and making them sound interesting. “Fils de Zamal” manages to combine Richard Bourreau’s violin with its French/Arabic accents with a nice exotic dub-influenced beat, setting the table for Péan’s gravelly voice and the way it works together with the Nid El Mourid sisters’ angelic crooning. It sounds sweet and mysterious if perhaps nothing more than that.
The best tracks here are the ones that combine all the influences that the band has: “Cinq Cauris Ocre” has the Arabic and reggae parts, and adds a bit of Latin feel, a great screaming guitar line, and some techno touches. I also like it when Péan gets all Jacques Brel on us, moaning out his songs while pounding heavily on his piano. But your mileage may vary on this one, because not everyone loves the idea of moody French beatnik jazz. And “Señor Calice”, where they bring in the aforementioned African brass band—namely, the Gangbé Brass Band, from Benin—is the hottest thing here, everything in a big fat soulful stew.
The problem here is that it’s all a little too “perfect”, maybe. The Gallic twostep of “Dobosz” admits of no imperfections, no flaws; everything is in its place, right where it should be. Things are better when it all speeds up and gets all “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” on us… but then it slows down again, to let us catch our breath, and then it’s just okay-ish. “Sin Acabar” is adorable, but bloodless. “A L’arène des Audacieux” is anything but bold, over-relying on the whole Romany string quartet idea and not enough on actually trying something new or audacious. Stop letting us off the hook! Keep up the pressure! Argh!
Somehow, it doesn’t quite make it all the way for me, ending up good rather than great. But it’s not something to ignore; just something not to overpraise.