In the last decade, Latin pop has turned into a sort of loud Frankenstein's monster, something bigger and meaner than its originators intended. The most popular albums in the field are similar to very expensive television commercials. You sit there entranced by the slick presentation, but you don't remember much once the moment is over.
It wasn't always like that, and there is still a handful of artists who, believing that less is more, continue the legacy of a subtler and less superficial approach to the art of pop. Here are a notable new album and a glorious collection of oldies that still matter:
*** Amaury Gutierrez, "Amaury Gutierrez," Universal. "All the love and abandonment of the world / Can take place in one night," sings this 35-year-old Cuban in his debut album, and you can't help but feel strong echoes of countrymen Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez in his evocative vocal phrasing and the melancholy poetry of his lyrics. "La Soledad de Esa Mujer" (That Woman's Loneliness), the story of a woman who sells her body and loses her soul in the process, might be the best song Rodriguez has never written. Veteran Marco Mazzola's production is too slick--you wish the songs had been given a rougher musical terrain on which to expand. As it stands, the 10 tunes here are a formidable introduction to a singer-songwriter whose inspiration is firmly rooted in Cuba's nueva trova movement, as he searches for an identity of his own.
**** Trio los Panchos, "Las Mejores Canciones," FTC. Starting in 1944, the Panchos trio brought bolero to a new level of recognition with the simple sound of the guitar, the requinto and wistful vocal harmonies. This double set is one of many Panchos anthologies, and although it includes no liner notes, the selections from the trio's early repertoire are especially noteworthy. There's a seamless version of the classic "Perfidia," a sweetly old-fashioned "Aquellos Ojos Verdes" and a few gems penned by the trio's own Jesus "Chucho" Navarro. In the '90s, a number of artists attempted to resurrect these boleros using the same path paved by Los Panchos. As these recordings make clear, they all failed to capture the trio's emotional depth.
CUBAN INVASION: With the success that the Ry Cooder-produced Buena Vista Social Club album has enjoyed in this country, a number of major and independent U.S. labels are trying to capitalize on the trend. The new projects flooding the market strive to emulate their model's warm, acoustic sound, melancholy cover art and emphasis on the song format known as Cuban son. Here's a look at some worthy competitors in the crowded field:
*** 1/2 Pedro Luis Ferrer, "Pedro Luis Ferrer," Havana Caliente. Of all the Buena Vista imitators, this is the one to get. Ferrer is a self-taught multi-instrumentalist and deep-voiced troubadour who composes his own material and is wise enough to surround himself with soaring female vocal harmonies. As a songwriter, Ferrer has a natural talent for upbeat guarachas. But his more pensive compositions, such as the hymn-like "La Tarde Se Ha Puesto Triste" (The Afternoon Has Gotten Sad), reflect a musical vision that is unusually pure.
*** 1/2 Eliades Ochoa, "Sublime Ilusion," Higher Octave. This is the solo album from the man responsible for "Chan Chan," the haunting opening track of the Buena Vista album. Here, he creates a virtual sequel to that record with a collection of sones, boleros, guarachas and even a guitar-based version of the Carlos Gardel tango "Volver." Cooder and Los Lobos' David Hidalgo are guests on a couple of tracks, and you can't help but wish Cooder's stamp could be felt throughout the entire collection.
*** 1/2 Various artists, "Casa de la Trova," Detour. An anthology of old songs as performed by a group of veteran trovadores. "Casa de la Trova" leaves the recipe untouched by foreign influences. The mission here was to preserve the legacy of so many forgotten songs that were used to serenade young ladies, fight moments of loneliness or accompany a bottle of rum. Of particular emotional value is the speech at the beginning of "El Misterio de Tus Ojos" (The Mystery in Your Eyes), where 91-year-old composer Daniel Castillo confesses that his wife of 53 years, Juana, inspired the hyper-romanticism of the majority of his songs.
Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.