Ozomatli – Don’t Mess With the Dragon

Politically conscious music has never sounded so fun. We may spend hours debating whether Public Enemy or Rage Against the Machine rocked harder (F.Y.I., no one can top Chuck D), but neither of them really inspired the urge to shake your ass quite like Ozomatli. They are quite possibly the only band that could write a song that simultaneously criticizes the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, and criticizes you for not dancing already (“Magnolia Soul”).

Somehow, despite musical prowess, lyrical credibility, and critical recognition, Ozomatli have never quite caught on: they aren’t angry enough for the political protestors, and are too smart for the party people. Their political party music has its share of fans – a base that has kept them in business for many years now – but they haven’t attained much mainstream popularity. Normally – as a reluctant hipster who likes to keep his favorite bands a secret – this wouldn’t bother me very much, but Ozomatli are a band with a message. Bearing banners of unity, cultural understanding, and political awareness (especially when it concerns the downtrodden), Ozomatli’s message is one that deserves a large audience. Ideology aside, Ozomatli is just a tight band, when you get right down to it, with an ear for melody and a preternatural sense of rhythm.

If any album could possibly push Ozomatli into mainstream recognition, Don’t Mess with the Dragon is it. The band’s musical sensibilities are as eclectic as ever, but the album feels more like a whole and complete work, while previous releases (however good) were sometimes fractured by the variety of stylistic excursions into more of a musical collage. The band itself also sounds more unified, you can feel all ten members of Ozomatli behind every track, moving as one. Drawing everything together gives Don’t Mess with the Dragon some damn powerful energy that propels the album from start to finish. This unity is apparently conscious. “On this record, we have more interplay,” says bassist and vocalist Wil-Dog Abers, “All the characters work together into a whole book instead of just being in a bunch of short stories.”

For the most part, the band’s musical style is the same – a cross-genre fusion of Latin music, hip-hop, R&B, soul, and the odd Middle Eastern or Oriental melody – but with more focus, courtesy of the band’s renewed vision and the aide of “super-producer” K.C. Porter of Ricky Martin and Santana fame. Still, Ozomatli throw a few curve balls, especially on “When I Close My Eyes.” Lyrically, the song is in typical Ozo territory, but musically it is a bizarro world collaboration between Oingo Boingo and Op Ivy, if both bands weren’t all, you know, gueros.

Don’t Mess with the Dragon stands out because it captures an already great band maturing and progressing, becoming better instead of treading familiar water. “The whole album is really a statement of just how much we want to take Ozo to the next level in terms of music and artistry,” says saxophonist, clarinetist, and vocalist Ulises Bella. After twelve years of hard work, I think they’ve done just that.

(Concord Music Group)