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.
Berwanger – Watching a Garden Die
Josh Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter
At the height of Vagrant Records’ early success in the late 90s, the label was buoyed by the incredible draw of their two biggest names- The Get Up Kids and Saves the Day. And while those two bands took a chunk of the notoriety, there were plenty of great bands that called the label home. One of those bands was The Anniversary. The Lawrence, Kansas band shared musical similarities with both TGUK and Saves the Day, but were unafraid to branch off into slightly more synthesised terrain that gave their songs an added element. Coupled with their super easy to digest harmonies and fantastic male/female vocals, songs like “The D in Detroit” still has a place in countless “favorite playlists” all these years later.
Since their initial break-up, guitarist and vocalist Josh Berwanger has been busy writing and recording a bevy of music under the moniker Berwanger. His recent discography is a talented kaleidoscope of songs that traverse genres from folk and indie, to more rock and straight forward singer/songwriter fare. There was plenty to like on his 2016 album Exorcism Rock, an album that delved into a little bit of psychedelia and fuzzed out indie rock. His 2017 album And the Star Invaders saw a gradual move away from the more electrified to the imaginative kind of singer/songwriter we’ve seen from the likes of Devendra Banhart. True to form, Berwanger continues to evolve as a songwriter, and his latest, Watching A Garden Die, is the next chapter in his thriving songwriter cabinet.
The gloomily titled record is mostly upbeat and diverse. While he may have shown a kinship to indie/folk songwriting of the Banharts and Obersts of the world previously, Watching a Garden Die features the kind of seasoned and more classic toned work you’d find on a Crosby, Stills & Nash record, or even a Paul Simon record. Songs like the softly, almost whispered “Even the Darkness Doesn’t Know”, and quietly moody, introspective “Paper Blues” (until that electric guitar solo hits) harks back to a time long ago of unfettered hair and soulful folk music. The album’s best moment is probably a combination of the wistful, pedal-steel toned Americana of “When I Was Young” and the equally effective, spacey indie rock of “The Business of Living”. The latter giving Grandaddy a run for their money in that music department. These two songs in particular showcase an artist fully aware and capable of his abilities to craft music that’s personal but exhibits the kind of draw you want from a record this close to the heart.
The album doesn’t have the more ruckus moments Berwanger exhibited in his earlier work (outside of perhaps, the more upbeat power-pop, new wavy “Bad Vibrations”). At times the album takes just a few listens to grab you. But when you listen to songs like the spritely “Friday Night” and the somber reflection of the twangy “I Keep Telling Myself” a few times more, you find the depth of the record. There are elements that reveal themselves on the second, third, fourth listen, and that’s rewarding.
Berwanger’s songwriting ability was never in doubt, and his new material continues to expand his songwriting reach. Watching a Garden Die, while not a frantic effort, is quiet composure.
Fences – Failure Sculptures
Failure Sculptures is a steady outing
Christopher Mansfield, under his alter-ego, Fences, has made himself well known through the collaborations with Macklemore and Tegan & Sara. It’s set him up with well-deserved excitement for his new album Failure Sculptures. The genre of pop scores a good reputation with artists like Fences. I wouldn’t necessarily categorize this album as pop, but Failure Sculptures has catchy songs that will appeal to a large scale, however it keeps the integrity of accomplished music. Each song provides a story that allows you to drift into your own thoughts. He also uses idioms like there is no tomorrow.
“A Mission” is a lower-toned song that launches the album with an echoing sound of voice and guitar, and it sets an example of the whimsical type of music that is shown throughout the album. Mansfield has a way with words and was definitely listening in English class. A+ for storytelling. OK, you twisted my arm, I’ll point out some idioms: “body sways like trees in a storm” sung in “Paper Route” and “lately I just pass by like a cloud” heard in “Brass Band”. It’s a great way to paint a picture in your listeners head.
“Same Blues” exposes a folk side to Fences. It has a lovely addition of cello in the background. It is enchanting and flows so well, which makes a terrific inclusion to the album. The plucking and acoustic sound of “Wooden Dove” has a powerful effect, and suits the song well. It follows the theme of echoes and storytelling. Although “War Kid” is a song about divorce, it is a pleasant way to end the album, and it features more idioms; “tears falling like bombs“.
This type of music allows you to drift and flow in and out of your own thoughts. It’s a friendly haunting and emotionally driven set of songs (and don’t forget about the idioms), and while it is quite predictable in a pleasant way, Failure Sculptures is a steady outing.