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album review

El Karma Karma Karma Comes Back To You Hard

ariel camacho

Ariel Camacho y Los Plebes Del Rancho – El Karma (Del/Sony Latin 2014)
This hypnotic trio album wants to trick you into thinking it’s traditional corrido music, when in fact it’s very modern. The 14 drumless songs follow a formula: Camacho and his guitarist, César Iván Sánchez, sing simple tunes in close harmony while tuba player Israel Meza plays basslines that double as leads. With the tuba hurling interjections around his vocal throughlines, Camacho calmly sets his requinto rippling. The results sound like dusty folklore, not at all like the shiny banda pop or driving corridos that currently occupy the regional Mexican zeitgeist. But is the combination of tuba with the higher-pitched requinto at all “traditional”? In Mexican bolero trios, requintos generally take on the virtuoso role, accompanied by two guitars, no bass instrument in sight. And as for norteño tubas — well, Gustavo Arellano doesn’t like em:

Time was when the accordion player was the papi chulo of the Mexican regional-music world, but tuba players have usurped the position in the past couple of years for banda music and that horrible-sounding banda-conjunto norteño pendejada.

[Emphasis mine.]

This isn’t that. But I mean, I like ’em both. Given the choice of a tuba or a bass, I’ll take the tuba 9 times out of 10. (As always, the 10th slot belongs to Noel Torres.) Though Camacho’s 14 songs are samey, their sound and melodies are indelible. And at a glance the songs all look new, mostly attributed to DEL Publishing. Written by a shadowy figure named El Diez, “El Karma” is an unlikely radio hit; though both Torres and Revolver Cannabis covered the song last year, Camacho’s stripped-down version sounds the most sinister. He and his Plebes also play the requisite Luna/Inzunza ballad — it’s pretty and not at all sinister, unless in Luciano Luna’s ubiquity you find a sign of the pending apocalypse.

¿Qué Estamos Escuchando?

One of my formative critical influences is Richard Meyers’ book The Great Science Fiction Films (Carol Publishing Group). This mysterious book, which I bought at a theme park and have never seen elsewhere, covers sci-fi/fantasy/horror movies from 1975 to 1983. Its copyright date — no kidding — is 1962. As I write this, book on my lap, it occurs to me that the book might not actually exist; or maybe Meyers saw all the movies and then went back in time to write it; or possibly I’m Richard Meyers. Big old mindfuck, in other words.

In the intro, Meyers/Langhoff writes, “Although we malign many films in the coming pages, we really love all science-fiction films…” I could say much the same thing about norteño albums, as I bet most genre fans could say about their stomping grounds. Even the worst norteño album (I’ll nominate a certain live set by LOS! BuiTRES! without bothering to look up its specifics), the emptiest wasted hour of cartel crap or romantic sludge, tells you something about the good stuff. You can learn something from anything. Or at least glean a good sentence or two. Here’s Meyers on the 1977 Christopher Lee flick End of the World: “Nuns start turning back into clawed and tentacled monsters who attack innocent bystanders for a few minutes until a serene shot of the planet fills the movie screen. A second later it explodes in a torrent of plastic, dirt and water. Director John Hayes manages to stretch this inconsequential drivel over eighty minutes.”

In that spirit, let’s consider:

Various Artists – Radio Éxitos: El Disco Del Año 2014 (Fonovisa)disco 2014

Epiphanies, such as they are, from the Disco of last Año:

1. Luciano Luna writes a lot of hit songs. Five of these 20 bear his name in the writing credits — two solo and three cowrites. The best, “Te Hubieras Ido Antes,” belongs to the continent’s best singer, Julión Álvarez, who knows how to push and pull rote melodic phrases into floating conversations — I mean, they’re anguished, but still floating with the illusion of life. Chuy Lizárraga’s “Nomás Faltó Que Me Quisieras” is also good. Luna’s other three songs — by Recodo, Recoditos, and Calibre 50 — are among the low points of their parent albums.

2. Unfortunately, they don’t stand out too much on this comp, because most of these songs are ballads. I get that these songs were hits, but why pick Calibre 50’s thin attempt at a power ballad when they had at least three other, more interesting, faster hit songs last year? Shouldn’t a curated hits compilation be better than any random week of the chart it’s compiling?

3. As Luna’s rival mushmonger Espinoza Paz focuses on his solo career, he may be scoring fewer hit writing credits. He contributes only one song here, El Bebeto’s ballad “Lo Más Interesante,” a misnomer.

4. There’s only one woman here, and she’s great! She’s also dead. I have no idea what Jenni Rivera’s “Resulta” is doing on this CD. Well, OK, I have some idea. Rivera’s an icon who was arguably the center of her genre when she died, and it’s not like any woman or man has commandeered the field to take her place. (Gerardo Ortiz is trying.) This track from her 2011 album appeared on 2014’s posthumous live album, and a Youtube video of the studio version — the version on this CD — has garnered four million views. So yeah, “Resulta” is a 2014 single. Was it a radio éxito? No. But did any Latina women have éxitos on regional Mexican radio in 2014? Um… (Not for lack of trying.)

5. I apologize for sleeping on Jorge Valenzuela’s wonderful “El Agüitado.” Mouthpiece squeal of the year! That said:




At PopMatters, I wrote 1,000 words about this solid career overview that someone else, somewhere, must care about:

Diana Reyes – Mis Mejores Duranguenses (DR Promotions)

In the title of her new career retrospective, Diana Reyes unapologetically invokes the “d” word. The album’s called Mis Mejores Duranguenses, a perfectly accurate title that nonetheless situates Reyes in a previous decade, out of vogue in today’s Mexican music world. But despite its nostalgic aura, that word, that genre—duranguense—is integral to what makes Reyes such a vital singer. Like Donna Summer, forever tied to a different dance music “d” word, Reyes transcends the style that made her transcendence possible.

For the past few years, being a duranguense fan in the norteño world has felt like being a scorpion set loose at a Sierra Club meeting. Everyone runs away when they see you coming, but once they’re safely across the room, they talk about you with condescending pity and acknowledge your Vital Role. Springing from the state of Durango and its satellite city Chicago around 2002-04, duranguense was, for a few years, the hot sound of regional Mexican music. That sound was a pared down take on banda with synth oompahs, ultra-speedy tempos, unhinged tambora (a bass drum with cymbals on top) acting like a lead instrument, and a ridiculous dance step all its own. Dancing el pasito duranguense was like “having gum stuck [on] the bottom of your shoe and trying to get it off,” explained dancer Jaime Barraza to the radio show “The World”.

By decade’s end, the genre itself had become stuck. Thanks to band infighting, legal wrangles, and the winds of popularity shifting from Durango to Sinaloa’s bandas and corridos, duranguense’s popularity dwindled. Maybe not down to the level of used chewing gum—recent videos by genre stalwarts Grupo Montéz and Alacranes Musical still command around a million hits apiece—but pretty far. Far enough that the annual Radio Éxitos compilation, which used to be one third duranguense, now shuns the genre. Even Los Horóscopos de Durango jumped ship; the band has sold its keyboards and bought tubas, and now it plays banda sinaloense.

Born in Baja California, with family from Sinaloa, Diana Reyes began her singing career recording traditional norteño. In 2004 she hopped aboard the Durango bandwagon and released six or seven albums for labels both major and minor, including DBC, the label she founded. To give you an idea how bankable this stuff was, that “or seventh” album was a Christmas record for Universal, Navidad Duranguense. She wasn’t alone. During those gold rush years, at least three other bands released Christmas albums with the same title.

Reyes was a welcome presence in the genre. Her husky voice was a powerhouse, and she could fray it at exactly the right emotional high points. Though you’d sometimes catch her chuckling, she sang with a gravitas that gave counterweight to her skippety-skip music. Look, let’s put our duranguense cards on the table. Lots of people hated this style and called it ridiculous circus music. They had a point. Most duranguense acts sounded like they were vying for Chintziest Synth Sound at the county fair. To overcome that handicap, musicians either had to own the chintz and become the wildest band in town and maybe cover “The Night Chicago Died”, like the sainted clowns in Banda Lamento Show, or they had to use their genre trappings to make perfect pop songs, like Diana Reyes.

At her best, Reyes achieved what Hi-NRG singers like Laura Branigan and Exposé did in their own genres: heartbreaking melodic lines belted over beats of endless momentum. Since Reyes’s beats were mostly polkas, the 20 songs on Mis Mejores might take some getting used to. After a few songs, though, the oompah is so consistent it falls away, and you’re left with the tune and the unpredictable clatter of percussion, clarinet, and bargain basement synth presets (yikes) popping out like the cast of Laugh In. In Reyes’s two biggest hits, 2004’s “Rosas” and 2007’s “Cuando Baja La Marea”, the band is so tight the players could be on autopilot, but their stop-on-a-dime breaks and complicated fills reveal otherwise. The melody to “Marea” takes advantage of the polka’s two-step feel to stretch and contract its phrase lengths like taffy. 2005’s “Mentiras” pulls the same trick. No longer tethered to predictable four-bar phrases, these melodies are free to start earlier than you expect, or extend longer than normal, giving them an emotional weightlessness. “Forget the beat,” Reyes and the melody say, “this is how I feel.”

What she feels is mostly sad, and then angry about the sadness. 2009’s album ¡Vamos a Bailar! opened not with an exhortation to dance, but with the post-breakup pine “¿Dónde Están?” A sub-Winwood keyboard fart reminds you this is a duranguense song. Reyes establishes the breakup in a thick purr, but once she hits the chorus, she and the snare drummer belt you with that string of questions: where are all those letters and flowers and visits and kisses? Our bodies, the ones that used to be close to one another—where are they? Turn your attention from Reyes to the band, and you’ll realize the keyboards and woodwinds are still going, but they no longer sound cheesy. They’re simply adding to the bedlam.

In 2010 Reyes released her best album, Amame Besame, through Capitol Records. Half-duranguense, half-techno cumbia, and all exquisitely produced, it effectively marked the end of duranguense not just for Reyes but for regional Mexican music in general. Apart from duranguense Reyes has been less exciting. Her 2011 roots album Ajustando Cuentas took on traditional banda. Her voice sounded spectacular, but the banda arrangements were too perfect—they were there to showcase her, not to be her sparring partners. Most recently, Reyes released a power ballad telenovela theme, “Yo No Creo En Los Hombres.” (Hey, me neither.) I won’t vouch for the song, whose horns read more “‘80s Chicago” than any horn-based music you’d actually wanna hear wafting from our fair city, but her voice remains a powerhouse. As for this new hits album, you’d think 20 straight duranguenses would be too many. And while some variety would be nice, the beats never quit, the new romantic melodies never flag, and the instrumentalists never stop finding new ways to go apeshit. Plus, Reyes’s voice might make people nostalgic for a time when they could reliably hear women’s voices on regional Mexican radio. Let’s hope so.

El Cantar De Los Gallos


El Komander – Cazador (Twiins Music Group)
I’ve got some catching up to do with Alfredo Rios, whose single “Soy De Rancho” and at-least-fourth album Cazador are among the best of 2014. With his aviator shades, fealty to country living, and endorsement of la mota, Rios could almost be Eric Church, if Church had Brantley Gilbert’s vocal range and described gangland killings in gory detail. (Please note: my translation studies don’t yet reveal whether Rios’s latest traffics in the gore. Back in 2011 he was the focal point of one of those “explain corrido violence to gringos” articles. I found it helpful, anyway.) The music on Cazador is wonderfully loose and shaggy norteño, its nonstop guitars frequently augmented by a banda that sounds like it’ll fly apart any second. Overall, the music’s as obnoxious as the tuba fart that punctuates Rios’s voice the first time he sings “Sí Señor, yo soy de rancho.” Despite having about eight notes at his disposal, Rios has charisma to burn; he only fools himself into trying to sing pretty once, on the mariachi ballad “Descansa Mi Amor,” where his ideal of love is a whispering frog.

Rios also appears on Calibre 50’s excellent “Qué Tiene De Malo,” a hit in México but not (so far) the U.S. We covered it over at The Singles Jukebox, where I said:

The artists are indignant. Both Calibre 50, a quartet named for a big-ass gun, and El Komander, who’s designed his “K” to look like a big-ass gun, have recently been fined and banned by certain state and local governments in Mexico. The reason? Their narcocorrido music “promotes violence.” Well, yeah. Wasn’t that the point of all the big-ass guns? The artists retaliate with this pro-freedom meta-corrido, “What’s Wrong With That?”, presenting themselves as working stiffs who’ll drink and party and spend hard-earned money on whatever kind of music they like. (They’re like two steps removed from Toby Keith in “That Don’t Make Me a Bad Guy.”) On their albums, Calibre venture into pop ballads and dangerously close to sea shanties; despite the broadest reach of any norteño band, their grasp sounds firmest when they return to corridos. That lurching waltz beat could trace the arc of a razor sharp pendulum, the tuba fluttering and blatting just out of its reach. During the spoken interlude they quote Komander’s 2012 Youtube hit “Cuernito Armani,” named for — you guessed it — a big-ass gun.

Los Amos – 2014 (Michoacan Records)
Los Creadores del Corrido Hyphy return, and they are… not so hyphy. Not that “hyphy” was ever a guarantee of quality in the norteño field (watch for my hyphy norteño thinkpiece, coming soon to this blog, only four years past its sell-by date!), but in 2014 they’ve amped up the outside songwriters, the ballad count, and the amount of reverb on José Guajardo’s voice. When José lays on some thick accordion, they can be lively and raucous; but more often they sound like old pros politely trying to recapture the raucity of youth. They’re most energized by the songs of Marco Montana, who evidently knows a thing or two about chinga-ing your madre.

Banda Tierra Sagrada – Así Te Quiero Yo (Remex)
Despite the minor key tunes “La Loca” and “Máxima Potencia” — have these guys been reading my email’s spam folder? — they never approach the desmadre of their most recent hit. The three different singers are modestly compelling, even if nobody sings as well as duet partner Marco Flores, but the band doesn’t offer much beyond one big brassy idea per song. Ballads like “Lucharé Por Ti” don’t even get that far.

Album Review: QUIERO SER TU DUEñO by Luis Coronel

luis coronel

Originally posted at PopMatters:

“Sometimes I think the little girls don’t understand a damn thing.”
—Robert Christgau, writing about Duran Duran (who were infinitely better than Luis Coronel)

The debut album from Tucson’s teen tenor Luis Coronel plopped like a wet turd onto the norteño scene a year ago, thanks to Del Records honcho Angel Del Villar, who noticed Coronel selling out small venues and decided to see how far he could go. The answer: pretty far. In 2013 Coronel’s debut album peaked at #2 on Billboard’s Top Latin Albums chart. Since then his videos have amassed millions of views, and he now routinely sells out bigger venues. Billboard chalks his appeal up to “a young bilingual, bicultural and cellphone-clutching teen demographic”, which seems accurate: not only do most people younger than 50 clutch cellphones, but Coronel’s latest video is set in a nuevo-American Graffiti world. In the parking lot of a place called “Bob’s Coffee Shop”, he wears a letter jacket and serenades his chiquitita in Spanish. Real Pat Boone type; Del Villar would’ve been a fool not to sign him.

The problem is, he’s no good. Coronel specializes in ballads so squishy they can slip between your ears while having no measurable effect on your brain. He wants to be yours; he was born to love you; you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to him. He’s the drippy boyfriend so afraid to offend your parents they just wanna kick him out the door. In his song “Tendrás Que Aguantarte”, one of two Coronel originals on his new album Quiero Ser Tu Dueño, he discovers his girlfriend has cheated on him. With a plucky banda patting him on the back, Coronel declares living well the best revenge and actually apologizes to his cheating ex, presumably because she still has to put up with his almost psychotic banality.

Dueño debuted at #1, doubling the first week sales of its predecessor, and indeed it’s twice as good. By which I mean, Con La Frente en Alto contained two listenable songs, and the new album has four. What’s more, the first album contained several songs clearly designed to humiliate young Coronel. Or at least that’s the only way to make any sense of them. At one point he sang a duet with his poised labelmate Nena Guzman, and someone — the smart money’s on producer Manny Ledesma — had the bright idea to make Coronel sing up in her range. Eeeesh. Someone should’ve told him singing flat is not an acceptable form of chivalry.

Coronel sounds marginally better — i.e., not painful — on the new album, but he’s still nobody’s idea of a good singer. He sings like a typical high schooler at a variety show; holding out long notes because he has to, he creates musical black holes from which no personality can escape. When he slides into a melisma, you can practically hear him reading the notes off a piece of sheet music. When people say of a singer, “so-and-so would never make it on American Idol” (or whichever musical reality show they’re insulting), they usually mean that singer is too quirky or subversive or “deep” to be embraced by the masses. Luis Coronel wouldn’t make it because he sounds completely unremarkable.

His best songs are the ones that give his norteño band or brass arrangers opportunities to show off. Indeed, his small recording band is one of the best in the business, a combo of great session players whose names appear on most of the rockingest norteño albums in recent years. (Do I even need to mention Jesse “El Pulpo” Esquivel on bateria?) On Coronel’s last album someone (I blame Ledesma) handed this extraordinary band a bunch of crap ballads to play, which left them floundering a bit. Mario Aguilar’s acordeón, for instance, sounded less “astounding virtuoso” than “bored player tossing off licks to fill the void”. Now, blessed with two bona fide corridos among the crap ballads, these musicians sound snapped back to life, like Marty McFly when his hand suddenly reappears. Granted, among the larger world of corridos “Mi Vida” and “Hermano Mío” are sappy things, respectively recounting Coronel’s hardscrabble origins and how much he loves his brother. Coronel sings both like he’s seeking head pats. That’s another Pat Boone touch: sweetening lascivious genres so easily offended listeners won’t take offense. But with a band this good, the singer’s easy to ignore.

The problem with Coronel isn’t that he’s safe. Banda el Recodo is safe for the whole family, and their music explodes in spasms of joy and excitement, heartbreak and anguish. In Coronel’s music, nothing happens, and then it happens over and over again. And he’s got some big names handing him songs! Luciano Luna, the Diane Warren of the Sierra, wrote Coronel two super generous tunes: the swinging polka “Nací Para Amarte” (sample lyric: “There are so many things that I have to give you”) and first single “Tenerte” (sample lyric: “I hope to give you what you crave”). Both are reliably pretty and pleasant. Neither is the least bit memorable, which is Coronel’s fault as much as Luna’s. Luciano Luna churns out song after song and returns to the same goggle-eyed well for most of them; but usually you remember his hits, like Noel Torres’s “Me Interesas” or Recodo’s “Dime Que Me Quieres”, because their singers find the authority to bring them to life.

Yeah yeah, Coronel’s just a teen heartthrob. But if Latino American teen heartthrobs have taught us anything, it’s that age ain’t nothing but a number and teeniness ain’t no excuse. Norteño’s Jessie Morales, bachata’s Leslie Grace, and pop’s Becky G have rasped, cajoled, sassed, and wiled their ways into people’s lives through sheer force of charisma. Coronel hasn’t got it yet. He’s doing pretty well for himself, but if — as reported in both Billboard and Triunfo — he’s harboring ambitions to cross over into English-language pop, let’s hope he grows into his own songs. He’s got nowhere to go but up.


Album Review: AMAME, BESAME by Diana Reyes

amame besame

Since Diana Reyes is repackaging and re-releasing her music, I’ll do the same with my writing. Here’s an unpublished review of her really good 2010 album:

Diana Reyes
Ámame, Bésame
(EMI Latin 2010)

Diana Reyes has been making good albums for years, but Ámame, Bésame (“Love Me, Kiss Me”) is an explosion of color and energy like nothing else in her catalogue. It’s also a breakthrough for duranguense, the Chicago-based techno-polka style that five years ago threatened to take over regional Mexican radio. Back then, Reyes pulled one of the most effective genre switcheroos in Latin pop history, when she left her native norteño music for duranguense. Reyes was so confident about this career move, she titled her first album in the new genre La Reina del Pasito Duranguense (“The Queen of the Duranguense Dance Step”). Just to make certain nobody argued, she sang the hell out of her songs and grew her fingernails to a frightening length.

Duranguense’s impact has since cooled, thanks to scene infighting and the fickle winds of public taste. Maybe that’s why Ámame, Bésame alternates its polkas with more pop-wise techno cumbias, in the tradition of A.B. Quintanilla’s Kumbia All-Starz. Reyes even covers a couple songs by Quintanilla’s late sister, Selena, and works with his production associate, Luigi Giraldo. Giraldo has assembled a crack band for his songs, and his arrangements really sparkle. When you hear how the accordion switches from outlining the melody to playing riffs, or how the strategically placed laser FX chirp away in the background, you can tell how much care he’s lavished on this music.

Of course, such sonic tchotchkes are par for the course with most pop music. Reyes’s stunning achievement is that she now gets that same bold, detailed sound with her duranguense producers. If Reyes’s previous four duranguense albums were good, they also sounded a little thinner, as though they were made on a much lower budget. Indeed, that’s been the case with lots of duranguense music. For this album Reyes’s Chicago producers, the Orwellian-sounding “The Team, Inc.”, have really amped up the energy. The polkas are faster and louder. Where Reyes’s backing band once sounded anonymous, they now clatter away on tambora and provide wild electronic tuba fills. With their madcap woodwind lines and beat changes, these polkas resemble Carl Stalling’s orchestra performing Europop songs during Oktoberfest. Which isn’t to say it’s ALL louder — the background keyboards that once popped garishly out of the mix have been replaced by softer, subtler synths. What it all adds up to is increased professionalism and, I assume, a higher recording budget courtesy EMI, Reyes’s new label.

Here’s what hasn’t changed: Reyes still sings the hell out of her songs. Whether she’s singing songs written specifically for her, or covering Selena or Lupita d’Alessio (a balladeer and telenovela actress), Reyes delivers each tune with enough full-throated conviction to completely command her arrangements. Her clear tone and phrasing keep her free from syrupy melodrama, but her voice is laced with a magical huskiness that hints at some hidden pain or experience. You sense she knows more than she’s willing to reveal in the song. In the sinister “Ten Mucho Cuidado” (“Be Very Careful”), which sounds like sped-up Ace of Base + accordion, Reyes switches from quick, matter-of-fact tongue twisting to a soaring world weariness. Her song-picking ability is uncannily good, but this woman would sound great even if someone made her sing an album of Ariel Pink covers.

Thankfully it hasn’t come to that. This is the best-sounding duranguense — or, I guess, semi-duranguense — album I’ve heard. It’s bursting with catchy pop songs and full arrangements that allow them to flourish. Ámame, Bésame ends with a polka version of the title track, replete with a whistle doubling the melody, haphazard organ fills, electronic squelches, and what sounds like EVERY OTHER MUSICAL INSTRUMENT that The Team, Inc. could dig out of their Memory Hole. It’s as though they realized that, after revolutionizing the sound of the duranguense genre, they should send us out with as big a bang as possible. Explosion accomplished.

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