In a performance as exquisite as it was compelling, Tijuana-born singer-songwriter Julieta Venegas demonstrated Tuesday at the El Rey Theatre that she belongs on the top rungs of rock en espan~ol, along with Cafe Tacuba, Fabulosos Cadillacs and Aterciopelados.
Venegas' new second album, "Bueninvento," is the best Latin record of the year so far, a mesmerizing cornucopia of catchy hooks, bittersweet lyrics, old-fashioned accordion lines and sloppy, homemade electronic effects. It's the kind of record that pulls you in and forces you to embrace its quirky, one-of-a-kind aesthetic.
There was a riveting darkness about Venegas' stage presence Tuesday, the kind of sweetly disturbing eccentricity you might find in a Tim Burton movie. Her thin frame swaying subtly to the beat of her unusual melodies (they can switch from orgiastic funk to delicate lullaby in a nanosecond), Venegas alternated between keyboards, accordion and guitar, smiling shyly at the members of her band and losing herself in the dreamy textures.
The fact that Venegas was able to project such an assured persona was even more impressive considering the obstacles she faced: She played in a room that was half empty, shared the bill with two highly talented rockeras (Lysa Flores and Claudia Brant), and was backed by a group that was only marginally equipped to translate her crafty songs into a tight live experience.
Then again, instrumental prowess becomes secondary when you have a voice of Venegas' caliber. On bouncy tracks such as "Fe" and "Casa Abandonada," she stretched the vowels of some words in unexpected ways, placing the Spanish language at the service of her confessional poetry.
Her lyrics of wounded idealism and wrecked love affairs extend a rich Mexican tradition of popular music imbued in bitter fatalism. Listening to the nostalgic "Seria Feliz" or the raw "Amores Perros," it is easy to see a connection between the 29-year-old singer and the scores of venerated Mexican performers who have explored similar themes, from Agustin Lara and Lola Beltran to Juan Gabriel and Jose Jose.
Venegas' hip sensibility has allowed her to modernize this tradition, successfully transposing it to the world of alternative rock. If she continues to display the same creative focus and emotional presence, Venegas could gain the legendary status in Mexican music that artists such as Lara and Gabriel enjoyed before her.