Joel Laviolette & Rattletree Marimba keeping Austin weird

Joy Cover

Honestly, I don’t think we do enough to make Austin weird around here. We cover tons of local shows and artists all the time, but…weird? And not weird in the Zorch-is-so-weird-they’re-awesome-this-is-really-hip, but more weird in the wtf-is-going-on-here mode. Well, today is weird. Check out Austin’s Joel Laviolette & Rattletree Marimba.

First, a little background information. Marimbas are like big xylophones. You hit them with mallets, but they have a broader range than xylophones thanks to being somewhat bigger. Their origin can be traced back to pre-Columbian times in West and Central Africa, a region whose music prominently features marimbas. By the 1600’s, they had migrated to the Caribbean, where they eventually became a staple of Central American musical styles. The marimba is strongly associated with Guatemala, but has been featured in both classical and popular music of the 20th century. For example, enjoy The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb” or the intro to “Mamma Mia” by ABBA, or even this crazy live version of “The Nurse” by the White Stripes, where Jack White proves he a God among mortals.

To this illustrious list, we can now add Joel Laviolette & Rattletree Marimba. Joel had the idea to combine this ancient African musical instrument with modern electronics. He and his team built their own (sometimes giant) marimbas that they then rigged to be able to produce all kinds of crazy sounds. I’m not going to go so far as to say it’s marimbas-meets-electronica like some of their press materials. But Laviolette is able to coax some crazy sounds out of his instruments.

The wild thing about the five-song Joy EP, which Laviolette will be releasing at a Halloween show tomorrow night at the Sahara Lounge, is that every sound on it is produced by one drum kit and a wall of marimbas. When you’re enjoying their cover of Joanna Newsom’s “En Gallop,” with its twinkling effects dipping in and out of the mix, it’s hard to believe that these sounds can be coming from a marimba. On all the tracks, there’s usually at least three different melodic parts going on, and they are all completely distinct thanks to the generous amounts of effects thrown through the marimbas. Sometimes nothing on the track sounds like a marimba at all.

This is most immediately enjoyable on the cover of “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” which was already a plunky song to begin with. It feels so natural for this marimba band to be covering, and they are able to rock it out.

There are moments that don’t work as well sometimes, to be sure. Laviolette’s voice is somewhat limited in its range, which is only an issue on “En Gallop” and then only if you’ve heard the original. Newsom sets an impossibly high bar with her singing on that ballad, and it’s tough for Laviolette to approach that. However, on “You Spin Me Round,” it didn’t bother me at all – partially because the track is just such a blast. Additionally, at times it can feel a bit overproduced, but it’s a fucking electronic marimba record. Overproduction is basically a requirement.

Listening to Joy is often joyous. Mostly, though, it’s a reminder to me about how wonderfully bizarre and creative and funky and open this city can be sometimes. I’m glad we have someone here at the cutting edge of this narrow niche, producing music that is original and fun. Check out them out tomorrow night at the Sahara Lounge (their live show is supposedly spectacular) and then snag the CD as well.


– Carter Delloro