Unbeknown to the general public (or at least outside of Latin America and pockets of “in-the know” folks here and there), Stephen Malkmus and Thom Yorke’s Latin American counterparts have been on the front line of Mexico’s rock movement since 1992. As if they were long separated distant cousins, the members of Café Tacuba are an undeniable presence in rock music south of the U.S. border. Since their debut album more than a decade ago, this quartet of artistically restless musicians have consistently raised their musical capacity to a height which earned their 1999 album Reves/Yosoy a Latin Grammy nod for “Best Rock Album”.
Comparisons to their North American brethren are of no outlandish tales either, but while they certainly owe a little to Pavement’s unbalanced approach and Pablo Honey era Radiohead melodies, Café Tacuba inject an incredible amount of individual ingenuity and a distinctly cultured flavor that one will only find in areas of unsanitary water and cheap tequila. This perhaps, is what gives them their elaborate mystic appeal; a perspective of rock music seen outside of the genre’s roots and archetypical perceptions. Deeply entrenched in their own musical pedigree, these four students of design all have a heavy hand in how Cuatro Caminos develops. “Cero y Uno” is a deceptive opener; drenched in sweeping riffs and vocals that swirl in and out of melody, it lures the listener into a false sense of more pliable offerings. And effectively so, because the track’s approachable arrangements are decisively cut to shreds with the following “Eo”. A ruckus romp into more frantic territory; a sound brought to America’s suburbs by the likes of the Voodoo Glow Skulls.
Their undefined dynamic is once again challenged by “Mediodia”. A far more subdued pondering that meanders into soft-spoken melancholy backed by clanging cymbals and kinks of instrumental chiming. Once again, it quickly swings, this time to the album’s most outstanding moment. In the ska tinged discordance of “Que Pasara”, frontman Elfego Buendia’s strained vocals quiver with the same effectiveness as Yorke’s would on the stages of Glastonbury. With a bassline so engaging and percussions that scissor with precision, Café Tacuba more than flexes their musical intellect as iconoclasts of their heritage. Their approach to deconstructing South American based rhythms isn’t entirely destructive either. In “Camino y Vereda”, the sambaesque beat that slithers in the background may appear lost in the crowds of rock guitars and echoing vocals but without it, the song would ultimately crumble.
Deep and truly engaging, the album only briefly succumbs to experimental pitfalls. The bizarre grouping of light merengue with enormously aloof disco beats that slipped its way into the early 80’s makes for one odd partnership; resulting in “Puntos Cardinales” distinctly Sonny Crockett feel. Then in “Desperte”, they embark on stripped-down measures that sneak and crawl its way around lo-fi island sounds and Buendia’s labored diction but results in a slightly plodding, directionless pace.
With only momentary misdirection, Café Tacuba’s latest is as remarkable as the vast ground covered in the album’s fourteen tracks. Traveling around a globe’s worth of musical attributes while humbly remaining dedicated to their craft, they cut through an immense amount of material with great serration. It is a wonder how so few outside selected circles are aware of this quartet; hopefully Cuatro Caminos will serve notice to the masses that Mexico’s most avant-garde rock musicians have been producing fine work for many years.