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Luiciano Luna

¿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:

NO VALE LA PENA

Lo Mejor De 2014

julion_alvarez_video-movil

At PopMatters you can read my list of the year’s best music — or if reverse-order lists make you feel uneasy, you can just read it here! For the PopMatters list, Matt Cibula, who’s been writing about norteño music longer than I have, added Regulo Caro’s metal-biting Senzu-Rah.

Beware: what follows may contain tubas. Also accordions, clarinets, canned gunfire, protest songs, dance songs, songs about roosters, songs about drug cartels, songs using drug cartels as metaphors to make the singers seem intimidating and/or awesome and/or “authentic,” songs using roosters the same way, and amor. Lots and lots of amor. Any kind of amor you can think of, unless it’s completely unremarkable and pedestrian. That’s not how these singers do amor.

In 2014, norteño quartets and big brass bandas continued to dominate the Mexican music charts, awkwardly named “Regional Mexican” in the U.S. and, somewhat less awkwardly, “Popular” in the motherland. (That’s “Popular” as opposed to “Pop” or “General,” both of which include Ricky Martin. We’re not talking about Ricky Martin.) Nominally these are “country” styles, but they’re a country music that borrows imagery from rap and 100-year-old folk songs, and chord changes from Tin Pan Alley and hard rock. In those regards, this music’s not too different from modern city-slicker pop country. But comparisons will only get you so far, because ultimately norteño and banda are pure pop for their audiences: Mexicans, Latino Americans, and anyone else (hi!) lucky enough to have radio stations (95.5 “El Patrón”!) that allow us to listen along. Not everything below is radio fare, but it’s all grabby like the best pop music. And while understanding Spanish can make listening more fun, particularly when cusswords are involved, it’s certainly not required.

ALBUMS

popmatters album1 alvarezJulión Álvarez y Su Norteño Banda – Soy Lo Que Quiero… Indispensable – Fonovisa
Indispensable is a shiny pop album in caballero drag. That’s true of most major label banda albums anymore, but this one has an advantage: the best singer on the continent. A young man blessed with a voice dusty as the Sierra, Álvarez sings 12 short songs with a mix of high melodrama and lived-in naturalism. Lead single “Te Hubieras Ido Antes” is a good example — listen to the way his voice tugs against the stately waltz laid down by the banda, falling behind the beat almost immediately. For a delicious moment it’s unclear whether he’ll make it out of the chorus. Eventually he does, big surprise, and goes on to some very happy flirtations with cumbia, corrido, and a woman with “Ojos Verdes” who inspires a gorgeous midtempo love song. “Hoy mi pena ya no duele,” sings Álvarez — “Today my pain doesn’t hurt.” I feel the same way whenever Indispensable is playing.

popmatters album2 rebelionLa Nueva Rebelión – Me Hicieron Mas Fuerte – LR
They’re 26 hours drunk, their songs are full of second hand hoods, and they have very defensive notions of justice and vengeance. Is La Nueva Rebelión the only rock ‘n’ roll band that matters? I don’t wanna overstate my case for the aesthetic achievements of their corrido lyrics, partly because I don’t understand the nuances of Spanish, partly because “aesthetic achievement” only matters if it brings the songs to life. That’s where Rebelión excel. They populate their songs with as lively an assortment of characters and life lessons as Springsteen or Jay-Z or whoever your favorite world creator is. That energy spills over into their music, with the singers harmonizing at crooked intervals, the accordion and bajo sexto filling every bit of sonic space, and the drummer, g-d bless him, flailing like Tommy Lee tearing up a hotel room.

popmatters album3 komanderEl Komander – Cazador – Twiins
With his aviator shades, fealty to country living, and endorsement of la mota, Alfredo Ríos could almost be Eric Church, if Church had Brantley Gilbert’s vocal range and described gangland killings in gory detail. For Cazador, Ríos has dialed down the gore but not the substance abuse. His band plays wonderfully loose and shaggy norteño, augmented by demented horns that jump out of nowhere and sound like they’re two hits away from falling down. Lead song “Toquezones de Cannabis” sets the tone; its abrupt tempo shifts will either make you laugh uncontrollably or start freaking out. Despite having about eight notes at its disposal, Ríos’s voice 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.

popmatters album4 torresNoel Torres – La Balanza – Gerencia 360/Sony Latin
Torres’s whirling dervish accordion and propulsive band were musical highlights a year ago. This year’s La Balanza is an unwelcome step toward respectability — it’s a touch less surprising and it flags near the end. But Jesse “El Pulpo” Esquivel is still pounding the skins in a way that makes music writers write things like “pounding the skins,” and Torres stages a couple coups. Coup #1 is hitting the charts with “Amanecí Con Ganas”, a funny scenario involving a spoiled rich girl, her gun-toting father, and an alarmed Torres in the role of profane farm boy Westley. Coup #2, “El Cambio”, pays tribute to Mexico’s autodefensas, the local self-defense militias standing up to cartels and Mexico’s corrupt government. In the U.S., with our overheated 2nd Amendment rhetoric and open carry wingnuts, a song like this might make you cringe. But its anthemic melody is undeniable, and it shows Torres experimenting like few other norteño songwriters.

popmatters album5 guzmanNena Guzman – La Iniciativa – Del/Sony Latin
A forthright singer who lets her brass players take care of the sentimental stuff, Guzman doesn’t do melodrama, or even vibrato. Sometimes she veers close to telenovela territory — playing the other woman in “Yo Soy La Amante”, she cattily reveals her identity to the first woman, then offers to be her assistant — but even then she sounds cheerful and warm. Corralling her small band is a different story. Though tuba, accordion, and bajo sexto are all technically playing the same songs, they’re locked in a battle to see who can improvise the most notes. Using her syllables to keep time, Guzman strides with authority through a solid batch of corridos, love songs, hate songs, and the requisite cumbia.

popmatters album7 recoditosBanda Los Recoditos – Sueño XXX – Disa
You may have seen the advertisements for this album? Like, they were on condom wrappers? Recoditos is one of the most consistent bands around, both in terms of their quality and their sticking to themes. They never release a bad album. They never release a mind-blowing fantastic album. They tend to sing about sex, XXX-rated dreams, drinking, partying, forgetting what happened during drunken parties, and things of that nature. (Also “love,” blah blah blah.) The musicians play their gleaming arrangements with spectacular dexterity. The singers’ personalities jump off the radio. Basically they are Electric 6. Doesn’t it seem like Electric 6 should advertise on condom wrappers?

popmatters album8 castilloMartin Castillo – Mundo de Ilusiones – Gerencia 360/Sony Latin
On the better of his two 2014 albums, Martin Castillo sings, drums, writes corridos, and leads his band with the same aim: attaining the norteño sublime. (Apologies to the late hip-hop scholar Adam Krims.) The first half of Mundo de Ilusiones (Castillo sees deeply) features a banda, and it’s pretty good, peaking early with the minor hit “Así Será”. But Castillo hits his stride on the last six songs when, joined by his quartet, he tosses off one corrido after another. Each song features one instantly memorable melody that Castillo sings over and over, meditating on the nature of illicit power, while around him the band weaves polyphonic tales of its own. This is the sierra of Castillo’s imagination: a complicated tangle of associations bespeaking a force best left implicit.

popmatters album9 favelaAdriel Favela – Mujeres de Tu Tipo – Gerencia 360/Sony Latin
Young Favela has the most soothing voice this side of Glenn Medeiros. In fact, you might have to go back to ‘70s AM radio to find soothingness of this magnitude. The overconfident title song suggests Favela would benefit from spending time with Miranda Lambert’s “Girls”, but his voice is so comforting it’s impossible to dislike him. How do you hate a warm bath? For a while Favela’s second album edges toward classic MOR, with the horns in “Cómo Olvidarla” attempting Tower of Power riffs, and “Murió El Amor” threatening to become “Every Rose Has Its Thorn”. But the back half delivers a string of corridos, played by an exceptional band and sung with a warmth not often associated with drug cartel honchos.

Also worthwhile:

Los Tigres Del Norte – Realidades – Fonovisa
Diana Reyes – Mis Mejores Duranguenses – DR
Los Rieleros del Norte – En Tus Manos – Goldfink/Sony
La Adictiva Banda San José de Mesillas – Disfruté Engañarte – Sony Latin

SINGLES

La Nueva Rebelión – “Me Hicieron Mas Fuerte” – LR Music
Lately, certain corrido bands have rocked harder and wilder than most rockers claiming the title. (Like, for instance, Good Time Rockin’ Jack White — his latest is OK, in the way reading someone’s dissertation is OK.) It’s still rare, though, to catch the norteño guys playing songs that would, in any other context, be considered rock music, which makes the title single from La Nueva Rebelión’s latest such a blast. Literally — the video’s body count is high. This manifesto of vengeful resolve opens with a trio texture straight from the Minutemen, and then the accordion kicks in — you always thought the Minutemen needed an accordion, right? The band launches into a power waltz, built on a chord change I think Black Flag once used, with both singers’ voices straaaaaaaaining into the chorus, shouting threats at their haters until the instruments have no choice but to collapse. It’s the most exciting four minutes of music this year. Trigger warning: things don’t end well for the horse.

Julión Álvarez y Su Norteño Banda – “Y Así Fue” – Fonovisa
Julión Álvarez sings his love songs with a smoky warble that makes him sound twice his age. Makes sense, since on paper this hit — rubbing shoulders with Romeo and Enrique on the Hot Latin chart — could be an ace pre-Beatles pop song, complete with those magic changes and a tune that’s unforgettable because it simply follows those chords around. But in the world of banda, those pop chords, along with the band’s relentless syncopated rhythms and the recording’s knifelike sheen, make this song sound utterly contemporary. Think “In the Still of the Night,” only faster, hornier, and hornier — Álvarez and his ladyfriend give it up on the first date, and so they go from there.

El Komander – “Soy De Rancho” – Twiins
Back in April at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle (home to FM 99.3 “La Gran D”), Professor Josh Kun described how people’s mobility — across borders, or from country to city and back again — is central to the mezcla of genres known as “Regional Mexican.” Alfredo Ríos, “El Komander”, agrees. “Sí, Señor, yo soy de rancho,” he tells a U.S. border official, right before Ríos’s tuba player farts in the guy’s face. Over furious accordion and a ramshackle acoustic waltz, Ríos goes on to describe a ranchera paradise full of singing cocks and weed-covered hills, but also admits his fondness for citified flashy brands and fast cars that may or may not have been afforded by those weed-covered hills. A man for all people! The people agreed, making this his first top 10 hit in the U.S.

Alacranes Musical – “Zapateado Encabronado #3” – A.M.
10 reasons you shouldn’t listen to this song: 1) The video endorses cockfighting. 2) The two drummers, while not explicitly endorsing cockfighting, sure make a lot of scritchy scratchy sounds that may or may not imitate agitated cocks scampering around mid-fight. 3) The song’s repetitive accordion+sax+synth riffs could drive you to drink. 4) I, for instance, am cracking open a bottle of Buchanan’s. Come over! 5) If you get drunk and start messing with cocks, Alacranes Musical will not help clean up your mess. 6) There’s no bass or even tuba in this song, so Alacranes Musical are clearly ripping off “When Doves Cry”, which also had no bass or even tuba. 7) “When Cocks Cry”. This song made me type that. 8) The third installment in a saga is always the weakest. 9) Oh wait, Toy Story. 10) OMG, are you remembering a cockfighting sequence in one of the Toy Story movies? It was like in a flashback, Sarah McLachlan was singing about sad cocks… WHAT ON EARTH AM I THINKING OF???

Gerardo Ortiz – “Eres Una Niña” – Del/Sony Latin
Like Adriel Favela, Ortiz could stand to sit down with Miranda Lambert’s “Girls”, but we’ll cut him some slack since he released his own 16-song masterpiece a year ago. Its third single, a chivalrous offer to kiss the extremities of a young woman until she screams the word “Gerardo”, innovates by sticking bachata guitar into the Sinaloan banda mix. Its melody is long and winding like Ortiz’s gilded tongue. Even though the current face of regional Mexican music isn’t really directing his song at me, it still sets my heart aflutter.

La Trakalosa De Monterrey – “Mi Padrino El Diablo” – Remex
You know the old story. Kid runs away from his abusive dad, falls asleep in a drainage ditch, wakes up to a Companion of Black touching his forehead, and joins a new family: the Devil’s family! What could possibly go wrong? From Faust to Coraline, Robert Johnson to Tom Hagen, the myth finds its way to “Mi Padrino” and its 40-odd-million Youtube views. La Trakalosa mix a small band texture with brass fanfares, an exciting gimmick that became al corriente this year — see also Los Buitres de Culiacán’s best songs.

Calibre 50 ft. El Komander – “Qué Tiene De Malo” – Disa
It’s not often a protest song hits #1 on any chart. But when two of Sinaloan corrido music’s leading flamethrowers teamed up for this ode to free speech, they topped the radio charts in Mexico. Granted, it’s sort of a self-serving protest. Both Calibre and Komander have been fined or banned in various Mexican localities, for the crime of “inciting violence” with their music, when really all they’ve ever tried to incite was the purchase of Calibre and Komander records. So they wrote this song on behalf of all hard-working citizens who enjoy listening to songs about drug murders. They wrote it for YOU! It’s sort of like when Anthrax did “Startin’ Up a Posse”, only much better — the whole thing swings like some fearsome pendular tuba.

Los Horóscopos de Durango – “Las Chicas Malas” – Universal Latin
Having jettisoned duranguense three albums ago, the Terrazas sisters throw themselves into Jenni Rivera mode, putting their banda musicians’ fingers to work as they embark on a wild night of drinking and, if the video can be believed, destructive pillow fights. Sometimes after the song has ended, I can still hear the screaming.

Also worthwhile:

Marco Flores Y La Número 1 Banda Jerez – “Soy El Bueno” – Remex

Banda MS – “Hermosa Experiencia” – Discos Sabinas

Regulo Caro – “Soltero Disponible” – Del/Sony Latin

Los Buitres de Culiacán – “Mejor Soltero” – Sony Latin

Lo Mejor De 2014: Banda Los Recoditos

recoditos

I reviewed Recoditos’ most recent album of heavy petting and even heavier drinking, Sueño XXX, at PopMatters:

Today They Smell Dawn.

Finding your way through the catalog of Banda Los Recoditos feels like entering some overstuffed shop full of toys and tchotchkes, every item beckoning brighter and harder than the last. Everything’s shiny and a tad overpriced. This is one of those stores where, to reach the back, you have to keep pushing aside dangling strands of stuff — probably little liquor bottles and sex toys, given Recoditos’ preoccupations. Yes, I am saying Banda Los Recoditos is basically the Spencer’s of the banda pop mall. And yes, that’s a good thing. Up to a point. You know how, after an hour spent enduring smutty jokes and stories about some dude’s wet dreams, you sometimes just need to go outside? Look at the least phallic thing available? And the first thing you see is like a fire hydrant spraying its obscene contents all over the place? The attendees of September’s Values Voter Summit understood: our society is soaked in sex and debauchery, a fact Recoditos also recognizes and exploits on their latest album, Sueño XXX.

Not since O-Town’s “Liquid Dreams” has a pinup band described so brazenly the plotline of a sex dream, especially to actual participants in the dream itself. “Que bien te veías sin ropa te confieso,” sings Luis Ángel “El Flaco” Franco in the forthright title waltz — “I confess you looked good without clothes on.” From there El Flaco’s dream grows more erotic thanks to its authors, the prolific and apparently lascivious Luciano Luna and Omar Tarazón. The songwriters-for-hire know their clients. After years on indie labels, Recoditos went major in 2010 and carved out a niche as regional Mexican radio’s feel-good bad boys, scoring the number one hits “Ando Bien Pedo” (“I’m Very Drunk”) and “Mi Último Deseo” (“My Last Wish”). (Flaco’s last wish is for everyone at his funeral to party.) In real life, the band has advertised Sueño XXX on condom packages. Besides its nocturnal admission, this new album finds the band contemplating whether or not to cheat (“es un dilema…”) and the ravages of alcohol on memory (“tres shots, cuatro shots, y no me acuerdo de nada”). They want cool chicks to poison their bodies with sex, bottles, and cigarettes (“Morras De Accion”). Did I mention they are drunk (“La Peda”)? Or possibly not (“No Hay Pedo”)? Because really it’s all you and your crazy mother’s fault? And maybe Banda Los Recoditos is just sick of your face, you ever think of that?

In the video for lead single “Hasta Que Salga El Sol”, El Flaco and second lead singer Samuel Sarmiento blatantly re-enact The Hangover with their bandmates and some pretty mujeres, though without any tigers or pathos—everyone just wakes up in a heap on the beach, flashes back to the previous night’s revelry, and decides to do it all over again. The song barrels nonstop for two and a half minutes, with Flaco running out of breath at the ends of his phrases and brass lines tangling together like sweaty bodies. The song’s author Rubén Esli got his big break on last year’s Recoditos album with the aforementioned “Mi Último Deseo”, and in a sense Recoditos albums function as a State of the Scene for norteño songwriters. Much like its older brother Banda El Recodo, Recoditos has the power and the chops to put new songwriters on the map, even while commanding songs from proven hitmakers.

Fortunately the band has good taste. Only occasionally does Recoditos slip into the saccharine crap Luciano Luna sells to other bandas — on Sueño, that’d be Luna’s “Me Sobrabas Tu”, a modestly pretty number that nonetheless feels long at three minutes. (The longest running time here is 3:19.) More often the band, led by musical director, trombonist, and sometime songwriter Marco Figueroa, encourages outside writers to give free rein to their untrammelled ids. Take the veteran writer Martín Castro. “Sin Respiración”, his signature ballad for Banda El Recodo, is a smooth talk anthem about amor leading to breathlessness. (It’s actually really good.) Last year romantic heartthrobs La Arrolladora Banda el Limón recorded Castro’s maudlin “Por Confiar En Ti”; like most of Arrolladora’s catalog, listening to it felt like mainlining a slow drip of mush. For Recoditos on the other hand, Castro cowrote “Vida Maniaca”, two kickass minutes of kaleidoscopic brass accents and drunk sex in hot tubs. Come on. You know which Castro you wanna hear.

Lest I paint Recoditos as one-note oversexed buffoons — I’m specifically thinking of the oversexed buffoons in Los Vaquetones Del Hyphy, who’ve been known to dress up as condoms — you should know that this banda employs stellar musicians who in fact have many notes. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of all the notes. Besides being drunk and insane, “La Peda” and “No Hay Pedo” display mindblowing virtuosity with clarinets shrieking in every direction. “Shot” and “El Mecánico” are the token rocking cumbias — there’s at least one every album — and “Entre Amor Y Tentacion” is gorgeous midtempo pop. The album has a few too many slow songs, but the singers do their best to keep things lively, dragging words behind the beat and belting their highly charged emotions to “la luna, el cielo, y LAAAAAAS ESTREEEEEEELLAS!” Sueño XXX is a cheerful and varied album that ends with three of its wildest songs. Say this for the band with its name on the condoms: It knows what makes a good package.

VALE LA PENA

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.

NO VALE LA PENA

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