Hurdy-Gurdy, Hydrofracking, and Hockey
Le Vent du Nord has always had the rare strength of being able to stay firmly rooted in the traditional folk music of Quebec without making the mistake of keeping it stuck under glass. This is important because, like so many extant folk traditions around the world, Quebecois music (and the culture which it has soundtracked since settlers first came to Quebec, and back in France before that) does not exist in a vacuum; it is living and breathing and thriving above the surface. There's no reason that Quebecois music can't be a part of the modern world without losing its soul, and vice versa. Le Vent du Nord is proof.
The instrumentation itself bears the stamp of antiquity: the churning of the hurdy-gurdy (vielle à roue) and the punchy kick of the accordion, the ornamented fiddle and the clacking podorythmie, and the warmth of the guitar (and sometimes piano) filling everything out. But there's an important distinction between "traditional" and "outmoded," and these four fine musicians have no trouble finding their place on the correct side of the line. Their sound is clean, smooth, lush, and warm -- just right for warming up a house on a cold Canadian night.
The band tackles several traditional songs on this CD, including "Dans les Cachots," a medieval French ballad which has been preserved in small pockets in Quebec. It's a Romeo and Juliet story with a twist (they don't die in this one), which is performed with a slow delicacy that preserves its darkly romantic nature. And as you can't make a francophone folk CD without at least one solid murder ballad, they've included "Le Coeur de ma Mère" ("My Mother's Heart"), a gruesome little matricidal number.
They've written several new songs for this recording as well, including one about a dragon (and who doesn't love a song about a dragon, right?). It's called "Le Dragon de Chimay, and hurdy-gurdy player Nicolas Boulerice wrote it when the band found themselves stranded in Belgium after the Icelandic volcano eruption a few summers back. It's a full-on fantasy extravaganza: witches, castles, dragons, princesses, dungeons... I won't spoil the story, but it's worth a listen, at any rate.
The original compositions aren't all whimsical, though. Their fearless defense of Franco-Canadian culture is a pervasive and important theme here. "Lettre à Durham" opens the album, with a scathing response to the Lord Durham's infamous 1839 Report on the Affairs of British North America, which suggested that the Francophone Canadian people and culture of the time were worthless and should be assimilated into Anglophone culture. The instrumental set "La Soirée du Hockey" suggests that Durham's work is not finished, and that it goes on in insidious small ways -- fiddler Olivier Demers wrote the lively music as something of a eulogy after discovering that Canadian public television would no longer be broadcasting hockey with French-language commentators.
Boulerice also hits hard with his musical retelling of a classic Quebecois folk tale about the devil and a farmer and their Faustian bargain, only he retells it to become a scathing critique of hydrofracking, which many feel is a major environmental danger to beautiful rural Quebec (and much of North America, at that).
There's not really a dud on here, though, and the production's solid on top of that. I'm thrilled to see that after ten years, Le Vent du Nord is still making such great music. Tromper le Temps ("To Fool Time"), indeed. Do yourself a favor and have a listen.
'Tromper le Temps' was released in November of 2012 on Borealis Recordings. Total playing time is 53.1 minutes.
In the interest of full disclosure, the writer of this article once briefly worked for a booking agency that represented Le Vent du Nord. She never worked directly with or for the band and is quite sure they wouldn't know her by name, but felt it worth pointing out.