Aguilas and Cobras
We say: The Parliament to Grupo Fantasma's Funkadelic
This is one of those offshoot groups that is better known under another name, in this case Grupo Fantasma. Like a Parliament/Funkadelic combo, Grupo Fantasma kicks out Latin rock and has been a staple on the summer festival circuit. Brownout seems like it would be more fun to see live though, with its funk groove and an ensemble of horns, Latin percussion, and blistering guitar leads. This is one of those albums that sounds pretty good upon first impression, then gets better as you start recognizing the songs. It's unabashedly retro, but still manages to sound fresh. It nods to the past but has the production quality and envelope–stretching sensibilities of a group of forward–looking musicians.
Most tracks are funky instrumentals, but "Olvidalo" alternates the lead between a chorus of vocals, a baritone sax riff, and a group of trombones—a strange combination that manages to fit together seamlessly. The kick–off track, "Con el Quete," is like something off an old Santana album, with an electric guitar lead and a repetitive vocal vamp trading the spotlight. "Chanclas de Ninja" follows a similar groove, but is slower, with horns and electric guitars playing off each other. "Tell Her She's Lonely" switches to English while retaining the salsa groove.
This hour–long collection is a solid one, especially considering all tracks were written by guitarist Adrian Quesada. This will probably appeal more to those who appreciate musical prowess than to casual listeners since the sparse vocals are just another occasional instrument in the mix, but Aguilas and Cobras is plenty entertaining and approachable for a variety of tastes.
Paris to Cuba
We say: A soundtrack adrift in the Atlantic, but pleasant cocktail party music
Paris to Cuba is the new album from a man best known for composing popular classical albums and film music: movies such as recent Sundance winner Precious and the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side. So think of this one as a soundtrack for an imaginary film where the characters move back and forth between the streets of Paris and Havana, never really grounded in either. The title track starts off with a vaguely Cuban feel, then veers into Euro–lounge territory with electronic drum beats and an accordian. On most tracks though the mood is more in line with decades long ago, when both Paris and Havana were it their golden ages.
"I See" is a torch song that is more "Paris to Rio" (but in English), with seductive vocals from Melissa Newman and a soprano sax solo in the middle. She returns on "Every Little Movement," which, with the proper scratchy sounds and low fidelity could have been from the Cole Porter era.
"Snake Eyes" starts off in a Cuban groove, with its syncopated piano lines, but then the singer comes on and it evolves into more of a retro lounge song a la Pink Martini. Some tracks are pure instrumentals: "Before She Walked Away" mainly features trumpets and a flamenco guitar, while the second version of "Ice Hotel" is piano only.
Without a film behind it, I'm not sure this collection is compelling enough to grab the public's attention, but for a dinner party or cocktails, it can certainly add a glamorous gloss to the occasion.
Raindrops and Elephants
We say: Inventive studio remixes that make great headphone ear candy
Any artist pretentious enough to put brackets around his stage name is immediately suspect, but thankfully this album is interesting enough to let that slide. Dunkelbunt is really the Vienna–based German Ulf Lindemann, a touring DJ who obviously knows more than how to string beats together. This is an odd project: turning a DJ loose to remix tracks from one label's catalog, in this case Piranha Music's. The result is reimagined mash–ups blending artists that never thought they'd be on the same tracks together.
The first track, "After the Rain," brings back memories of the Jah Wobble album Rising Above Bedlam from the early 90s, with its ethereal electronic touches in the treble range mixing with organic vocals and drums in the middle. It seldom sounds like a forced stretch; when a Balkan accordian intro leads to Jamaican–style toasting vocals from Cape Verde artist Simentera, then an Egyptian female singing in Arabic kicks in during an interlude, it sounds like they were always meant to be together. In less talented hands, many of these songs would be a big bowl of slop, but this club veteran obviously knows how to create a good recipe. The collection only falls on its face once though (on a solo piano track that could be Schroeder's solo in a Peanuts special), a rare feat in an album from someone known as a DJ. With these remixes, dunkelbunt seems to understand that longevity requires some true musical structure that leads to repeated listens.Dunkelbunt is also not someone afraid of real instruments and arrangements: on the vaudeville–sounding "Cinnamon Girl" in French and English, there's not a bleep or blip to be heard among the piano, drums, tuba, and brass section. (A no–vocals bonus track at the end reworks it in a more contemporary vein though.)
If you like your world music with a good club groove but enough elements going on to hold your interest on a plane or car ride, Raindrops and Elephants gets my highest recommendation. Some albums I review on here and then forget about a week later (see the next review). This one will stay in heavy rotation for a good while.
Putumayo Presents: España
We say: Wake me when it's time for tapas and vino
You know you're in trouble when the liner notes are this generic: "The contemporary music of [insert country here] is a fascinating blend of old and new, reflecting centuries of tradition, diverse regional cultures, and international influences."
You could apply that description to almost any country, which makes me think even the liner note writer was phoning it in on this collection. Maybe I'm getting old and cranky and my expectations are too high, but these Putumayo country releases are making me yawn a lot lately. Some may blame this on original A&R honcho Jacob Edgar spending most of his time on the Cumbancha label now. Some may blame the wider proliferation of world music in our media universe, making it harder to surpise us. To me it just sounds like the label has lost some of its original passion.
There's a lot of incredible music coming out of Spain, from the challenging to the mesmerizingly beautiful, but you wouldn't know it by listening to this España collection. If someone asked me after listen #3, "What's your favorite track?" I'd have to respond that I couldn't remember any of them well enough to pick one.
The collection starts out having promise, with legendary Para Poder Olvidarla singing in his influential rumba catalana style. Then the next track sounds like an wimpier imitation of the first. After that things plod along with mid–tempo pan–international tracks that sound like they could be from any "world music lite" collection. The band Calima was formed by one of the founding members of Ojos de Brujo, but that only makes you wish they were included in this collection instead. Dani Macaco provides some star power by joining Gossos, but the resulting song is still a snoozer.
And on it goes through more tracks that would be perfectly home on Adult Contemporary radio stations if they weren't in Spanish. In a trend that also seems to creep into every Putumayo collection now, the last two tracks have feet firmly set in another culture's traditions: "Te Estas Equivocando" would have sounded fresh if it had been on Paul Simon's Graceland album two decades ago, while "Pasapeanas" from Biella Nuei makes you think you should be sipping a pint of Guinness instead of a glass of Rioja.
As with the last few Putumayo collections reviewed here, this one is not at all offensive or annoying. There's just nothing on here that's going to inspire you to get out of your easy chair or perk up your ears. And coming from a rich musical country like Spain, that's a shame.
Perceptive Travel editor Tim Leffel is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, now in its 3rd edition. He once wrote bios and marketing copy for now-forgotten rock bands, but he currently spits out more heartfelt raves on the Cheapest Destinations Blog and the Practical Travel Gear Blog.