Over at OC Weekly, Gustavo Arellano overrates the new album by Pepe Aguilar, No Lo Había Dicho (Equinoccio), calling it “an audacious mix of vallenato, pop, banda, and ranchera that lands more often than not.” NorteñoBlog respectfully disagrees with both value judgments expressed in that sentence.
In 2016, there’s nothing “audacious” about mixing up those styles of music — especially for Aguilar, who’s been doing so longer than his contemporary Beck, who made his reputation with purportedly audacious musical mixology back in the ’90s. (Who can forget the mariachi version of “Jackass”?) Even if we limit our search for audacity to Aguilar’s field — the intersection of pop and ranchera known to radio programmers as “romantic Mexican music,” says Billboard‘s Leila Cobo — the idea of crossing over is nothing new. And since artists as diverse as Juan Gabriel, Juanes, Chiquis, Helen Ochoa, and Natalia Jiménez have all recently mashed up “traditional” styles with pop, Aguilar’s music fits right in. Genre mixing is definitely welcome, and it’s still little-heard on regional Mexican radio (the format probably played more genre mashups during the ’90s electro-banda-and-Tejano heyday), but Aguilar’s music has plenty of company in the wider world.
Except — here’s respectful disagreement part 2 — this album is so bad. I’d reverse Arellano’s equation to say it misses most of the time, and hits with three decent uptempo songs. NorteñoBlog has already discussed the Mexican hit “María,” albeit the banda single version; the version on the album is “pop,” meaning it starts with some vaguely disco guitars before relaxing into a midtempo skank. Also poking their heads from the surrounding tedium are the accordion-driven cumbia “Pa’ Que Te Convenzas,” and “Mi Lindo Pueblo,” probably the song that made Arellano think “vallenato” — it sounds like a Juanes stadium raver. (My knowledge of vallenato only slightly exceeds Donald Trump’s knowledge of domestic and foreign policy.) Everything else is slow-to-midtempo power balladry that’d fit well on an early-’00s adult alternative playlist, right beside Vertical Horizon and those “Counting Blue Cars” guys. The album sounds good, i.e. expensive, from the electric “Fast Car” ripoff riff that opens “Volver a Mi Casa” to the booming strings + electric harpsichord + “Be My Baby” beat in “Lo Que Siente de Corazón (Maldito Amor).” But every cool sound portends more plodding.
Aguilar is a good singer, no question, with a charismatic croak and an understated way of shaping his verse phrases. And Arellano overrates him with good reason: He embodies the chivalrous Mexican archetype of the charro. Arellano:
The charro is the manifestation of mexicanidad that the country broadcast to the world for decades via song and film, but it now has as much relevancy to modern-day Mexicans as Tom Mix has to gabachos. Because over the past two decades, a far more sinister national avatar has emerged: The narco, the person for whom honor is only found at the tip of a cuerno de chivo, who pledges loyalty not to the Virgin of Guadalupe and country, but to cartels and ultraviolence. Whereas the narco’s ancestor, the bandito, was ostracized in popular culture, the narco is now hero, a reflection of Mexico’s chaos and an aspirational figure now that the charros have gone the way of El Tri’s chances of winning the World Cup.
Who would you rather have as an icon to your young landsmen? Aguilar the gentleman, or the amoral twits in Los Rodriguez de Sinaloa? The ethical conundrum with Los Rodriguez, as with similarly problematic acts like Los Del Arroyo or Los Titanes, is that they’re a fierce band. It might be morally irresponsible to blithely praise their music without considering the lyrics, or worse, to praise the lyrics without ignoring their real-world implications. But it’d be critically irresponsible to ignore their music’s power, and to deny that any of that power flows from their subject matter. Music isn’t a zero-sum game, and I wish Aguilar’s album was better, but next time he should mash up his vallenato and ranchera with something besides the worst elements of stodgy turn-of-the-millennium alt-rock.
NO VALE LA PENA
Fortunately, the gentlemen in Banda El Recodo have woken from one of their periodic seven-year siestas to bring us Raíces (Fonovisa), probably their best album since 2009’s Me Gusta Todo de Ti. As its title indicates, Raíces is a total roots move, and Recodo’s roots go deeper than most, having played the banda game in some form since 1938. This time out they cut a bunch of old songs, mostly instrumentals, although the album also contains Jesús Scott’s “Mujer Mujer,” a Mexican hit single crooned in impeccable two-part harmony.
The album features a bunch of classics you can find at UCLA’s Frontera music library — here’s a “mambo rock” version of “Palillos Chinos” — and on previous Recodo albums, only with inventive new recordings. The full brass tuttis give way to clarinet and brass solos, exciting for their brevity, and a generous helping of mouthpiece farts. As is the custom, “Diana Ranchera” alternates thrilling percussion builds with gigantic group fanfares. If I have any criticism of this album, it’s that Recodo is simply too good — unlike some older banda recordings, you never get the sense that these songs will fly off the rails and collapse, an effect that could lead to chewier rhythms. (Check out this Banda Chilacachapa version of “Diana Ranchera” for an example.) But that’s a small problem. All professionals should perform their jobs with this much joy and creativity, and Raíces is one of the year’s best.
VALE LA PENA
For further listening, here’s Billboard‘s Leila Cobo and journalist Justino Aguila talking about both albums, the new Intocable, and two tunes called “La Bicicleta.”