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Latin Alternative: A Genre All Its Own

By Ed Morales

August 4, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Newsday. All rights reserved.

Since the third annual Latin Alternative Music Conference, to be held in New York Thursday through Saturday, is just around the corner, this is a good time to evaluate some of the recent releases in the genre. Like the fleeting definition of Latin alternative itself, the records reviewed below range from rock to tropical, with reggae, cumbia and rap in between.

Babasonicos, "Jessico" (Pop Art Discos/DLN): Argentina's Babasonicos have been kicking around since the mid-'90s, always on the verge of popping, but somehow never quite getting there. Leaving their Sony deal behind, their independently produced new album seems to fulfill all that early promise. Playing a minimalist psychedelic rock that trades on synthesizers and guitar evoking everything from King Crimson to Depeche Mode, "Jessico" is like a lost chapter of progressive rock history, en Espaol. Lead singer Adrin Rodrguez has never sounded more coyly mischievous, especially on "Los Calientes," and "Pendejo," which features a riff so sludgy only Butthole Surfers would understand it.

Bunbury, "Flamingo" (EMI Latin): Ever since he left his seminal Latin rock band, Los Heroes del Silencio, Enrique Bunbury has been pursuing a curiously wacky style that involves cabaret, glam and the blues. Possessing a piercingly effective croon and a talent for writing languorous melodies and lyrics, Bunbury succeeds as spectacle, if not as a brilliant artist. The tunes on "Flamingos" have a bit more creative spark in them than on his previous albums, experimenting with new rhythms and more abrasive guitar sounds. Even a Middle Eastern feel emerges on "One, Two, Three." His cover pose as an exhausted boxer is somehow fitting - a good album if your idea of fun is an all-night club crawl with a pleasantly punch-drunk poet.

Cbas, "Cbas" (EMI Latin): Andrs Cbas is a 23-year-old sensation who mixes pop-cumbia with raucous rock, and his song "Mi Bombn" is one of the strongest Latin hit singles of the summer. Effortlessly sifting through various traditional Colombian styles, such as bullerengue, chand, porro and puya, he brings an unusually edgy guitar energy to the table: Think Carlos Vives meets Jane's Addiction. There's even a sultry ballad, "Tu Boca," which he classifies as "porno-pop." Produced by Chucho Merchan, a London- based Colombian who has worked with the Eurythmics and Jaguares, the album sometimes feels like it's all over the place. But "Cbas" is as exciting a debut by a Latin alternative artist as there's ever been.

Ernesto, "The Ballad of Gordo Yepez" (Roach Music Marketing): Essentially a skanky-sounding, bottle-neck guitar playing bar band masquerading as Latin alternative by including songs like "Mentiras" alongside "Long Island Bad Girl." Lead singer Tito Ernesto Ortiz and guitarist Denny Blake do get the "rock" part right-amusing, and they get points for trying.

Mala Rodriguez, "Lujo Ibrico"

(Universal): A fascinating glimpse into the world of hip-hop from Spain. Rapping in a steady-smooth lower register, her voice at times quavering like a flamenco singer's, Rodrguez easily outdistances most of her Latina rapper counterparts. And like many of her Cuban and Spanish contemporaries, as well as our own country's purist hip- hop crews, Rodrguez's lyrics are more like socially conscious poetry than boasts. Still there is plenty of attitude in her, and the minimalist backing tracks make her even more mesmerizing.

Rabanes, "Money Pa' Que" (Sony Discos): The veteran Panamanian ska-rockers are back with a typically strong effort. Their basic approach is unchanged, but the production is crisper and more innovative. Simple pleasures like "Bam Bam" incorporate vallenato-y accordion, Caribbean soca and sharply percussive guitar work. "Mambo" doesn't skimp on raunchy ska riffs, and "Raza" might become one of those universal Latin rock anthems. An alternate version of the single "Everybody" even has an '80s electric bugaloo kick to it.

Vivanativa, "Claro" (Universal): The tip of the iceberg of Puerto Rico's exploding rock scene, Vivanativa plays slick, well-produced power pop with a touch of Hendrix-like funk. While it can be as formulaic and sweet-voiced as La Ley, it has an indefinable edge that promises a bigger payoff. The syncopated swing of "Sin Fronteras" is irresistible, and the psychedelic nostalgia of "Eco en la Eternidad" lingers like an endless summer afternoon.

Volumen Cero, "Luces" (Warner Latina): Miami's Volumen Cero is as compellingly noisy as any Anglophone indie rock band, and they play their instruments with a professional precision. Their songs build on simple riffs, and guitarist Martin Chan has an impressive array of distortion tricks. When they're really cooking, as on "Celula," they can sound like early Caifanes. Luis Tamblay's laid-back vocals don't electrify as much as they could, and the songs can lack bite. But "Luces" is important for putting another U.S.-based band on the Latin alternative map.

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