Never a company to let a good trend go uncompiled, the beneveolent Fonovisa corporation has recently released Guitarras de la Sierra, a collection of songs from young sierreño trios — two guitars, plus either a tuba or bass holding down the bottom end. Las guitarras have been rocking la Sierra forever — NorteñoBlog has previously delved into the career of Breaking Bad corrideros Los Cuates, for instance, and several older comps called Guitarras de la Sierra exist, featuring guys like Miguel y Miguel and various iterations of Los Alegres. The differences, in our brave new post-Ariel Camacho world, are threefold:
1. The lineup of guitars plus tubas, without an accordion or drums, now constitutes a reliable hitmaking combination, not just on the radio but online;
2. This means you’re gonna hear more romantic sierreño songs than you would have in previous generations; and,
3. Sierreño musicians are more likely not just to be young men — Los Cuates started playing when they were only 14, after all — but to sing like young men; and specifically, like young pop stars, rather than salt-of-the-earth gallos who grew up on the ranch. In other words, not just musical idols who appeal to teens, but bona fide Teen Idols.
To get a sense of what I’m talking about, compare Los Cuates’ first top 40 hit, “Me Haces Falta,” with a song from the latest Guitarras comp, Crecer Germán’s YouTube hit “Lo Que Te Amo.” Los Cuates’ hit, recorded in their mid-20s, marked a gradual departure from their guitar and bass lineup: Gabriel Berrelleza was playing an accordion by this point, and they’d recently replaced their bass with a tuba. “Me Haces” was a skippily bereft lost love single, but with its delamatory melody and I-IV-V chords, it could have been a corrido with different lyrics:
But there’s no mistaking the subject matter of Germán’s song. Even without having the lyrics in front of you, you can tell this is a young man deep in the shit of romantic bereftitude. We know this because something in his tone screams “teenager in love” — he strains for emotional affect without having the vocal chops to get there. Couple this with the wandering melody, the minor chords in the progression, the brief but keening melismas, and you’ve got the commercial face of sierreño guitars 2017:
Is that all there is to the style? Of course not. Germán first sang corridos and love songs with his former band Alta Consigna, and in an entertaining attempt to be puro raza or something, he’s released a “Deluxe Edition” of his snoozy romantic 2016 album Hombre Afortunado (Fonovisa). Besides “Lo Que Te Amo,” the expanded edition contains a whole bunch of tributes to real-life narcos: “El Chapo,” “El Ingeniero,” “Kikil Caro,” etc. Not surprisingly, these songs are a whole lot more fun than the first, original half of the album, which was all about love. They’re faster, the requinto-tuba interplay is swinging, and Germán’s immature singing is much better suited to flat yellow journalism than to florid purple poetry. If the expansion was available on its own, it’d be an easy VALE LA PENA. But what am I saying? It’s 2017. You have the internet. Make whatever Crecer Germán album you want.
No such qualifications are necessary for the VALE LA PENA fourth studio album from Jesús Ojeda y Sus Parientes, El Amigo de Todos (Fonovisa — all these albums are on Fonovisa). Ojeda currently has a radio hit with the ballad “No Es un Juego,” inluded on the Guitarras comp. Relevant to point 3 above, its video is partially set in a Mexican high school, depicting a romance between two fresh-faced hetero cuties; Ojeda and his rhythm guitarist are the only ones in the video wearing cowboy hats. Written by the ubiquitous Joss Favela, “Juego” is the slowest song on Ojeda’s album, which is otherwise the most fun you’ll have pretending to be in the Sierra this year.
Sierreño albums can suffer from the saminess of folk records — after all, there’s only three instruments and no drums, and chord selection tends to be limited. Ojeda and his Parientes get around this problem by speeding up and complicating their rhythms, and by adding some inspired high harmonies. As a lead guitarist, Ojeda seems to have read and digested the “Stubbornness and the Single Note” chapter of Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever — he comes out of choruses obsessively bearing down on one repeated note until it bleeds, no doubt goosing audiences into raging ecstasy. If the Parientes remind me of any folk trio, it’s prime Kingston Trio, just sheer musical pleasure from top to bottom. Here they are playing their Mini Lic corrido “El Piñata,” today’s Pick to Click. (The licks are anything but mini, amirite?)
Ojeda is too manly to give off a teen idol vibe. The same cannot be said of the carefully-coiffed Neto Bernal, who appears on Guitarras with two songs, the very catchy “Libros Tontos” and the gaggy “Es Virgen tu Corazón”. In his videos, Bernal inhabits the sanguine tree-lined streets of Mexican suburbia, playing his music in parks and high schools, making out and casting puppy dog eyes at young muchachas. This is a world away from the lawless Sierra dogwhistled by the cover of Guitarras; in Bernal’s world there’s not a helicopter or Hummer in sight, and the only SUVs occupy the carpool lane. His 2016 debut album De Mexicali Hasta Reynosa (Independiente, presumably licensed to Fonovisa?) has the rest of the story, along with an occasional piano(!). The Blog still needs to listen to the whole thing, but Bernal’s mere existence in this milieu is a notable development.
Also in attendance is the unnecessarily flat-stomached caballero Raúl Casillas, courtesy a couple “versións sierreños” tacked on to the end of his NO VALE LA PENA banda album Junto a Ti. These guitar versions turn out to be better than their banda counterparts, and I blame whoever wrote Casillas’s banda arrangments — with 16 instruments at their disposal, they couldn’t capture the excitement and novelty Casillas’s sierreño band achieves with three. Casillas scored a U.S. hit earlier this year with the brass version of Luciano Luna‘s “A Poco,” but check out the guitar take first. It’s just as full and jaunty, but with the sense that the players are coming up with all this invention off the tops of their be-hatted heads.