Shakira flunks her orals

Times Staff Writer


“Fijacion Oral Vol. 1" (Epic)

** 1/2

Colombia’s crossover queen sure has a knack for corny album titles. She gave us “Laundry Service,” her hit English-language CD, so named because she felt metaphorically cleansed. Now we get a Spanish-language collection that translates as “Oral Fixation” because she’s metaphorically stuck in an infantile obsession with what goes in and comes out of her mouth.


It’s hard to see how that applies to the 10 songs on this pop-rock set, written and produced by the self-confessed control freak, who also conceived the cover showing her holding a nude baby. Maybe we’ll find out in “Oral Fixation 2,” the separate English-language CD due for release later this year.

By inviting us to fixate on the words her mouth emits, Shakira puts a spotlight on the work’s weakest link -- its lyrics. Get ready to cringe: “When I look in the pupils of your eyes, I know God still exists.” Or wince: “Rage weighs more than cement.” Or guffaw: “I have dark circles under my eyes from staring so long at you.”

The only way to listen to this album is with the left brain, or whatever side doesn’t know language. Musically, it’s terrific. Shakira has a seductive way with melodies and her voice has matured, with finessed falsettos, whispered tenderness and volcanic crescendos.

The production is impeccable too, with layered atmospherics that echo ‘80s rock, for which she shares a love with Lester Mendez, who co-produced nine of the 12 tracks. Singer Gustavo Cerati, a veteran of Argentina’s pioneering ‘80s rock band Soda Stereo, adds subtle harmonies to two ethereal numbers he co-produced.


The first single “La Tortura,” featuring a duet with Spain’s Alejandro Sanz, is so deliciously pop you forgive the crass calculation of mixing restrained reggaeton beats (narcissistically called “Shaketon”), a dash of Gipsy Kings, a touch of Colombian accordion. Radio loves it and the clubs will too.

The album should really be titled “Boyfriend Fixation,” since it explores her celebrity romance with Antonio de la Rua, son of a former Argentine president. The couple has been together for five years, and evidently Shakira has thought of nothing else.

She loves him. She’s afraid to lose him. She fights with him. She wants him again.

Just when you think you’ve heard about enough of her love life, she hits you near the end with the album’s most engaging track, the glowing “Dia de Enero” (“A January Day”), a comforting love letter that shows flashes of good writing.


But it also contains this line: “I met you one January day, with the moon on my nose.”

One good thing: The liner notes don’t have English translations.


He’s keeping his home fires burning


Francisco Cespedes

“Autoretrato” (Warner Music Latina)

*** 1/2

This is a jewel of an album from a Cuban singer-songwriter living in Mexico. He returned to Cuba for this recording, a move that may be commercially unwise but certainly was artistically astute.


“Autoretrato” (“Self-portrait”) is a complete departure from the overproduced pop of Cespedes’ recent albums. Here, the arrangements by Dagoberto A. Gonzalez Jr. (Pablo Milanes) are pared down to a single instrument on most tracks, a style that commands attention like a whisper.

A delicate harp, a dramatic violin, a subtle rumba bass with the sharp click of clave sticks -- they all enhance Cespedes’ extraordinary vocals, simultaneously gruff and tender. And they underscore his philosophical themes of self-discovery and romantic yearning. In his revealing version of the classic “Besame Mucho,” he sings a cappella with a jazzy vocal chorus.

The most moving moments come in a pair of related songs, the recited short poem “Si Algun Dia” (“If One Day”), backed by a fragile oboe, followed by the heart-rending “Patria Divina” (“Divine Homeland”), with acoustic guitar. Together, the songs contain all the desperation of the Cuban diaspora, the disillusion of tattered idealism and the faint flicker of hope for reunification.

The love and sadness he feels for his homeland give you goose bumps.



Group is still on solid ground


“Welcome to Cafe East L.A.” (Thump)



This veteran Chicano band rode the wave of the so-called East L.A. sound at its crest, briefly breaking out with smooth pop hits such as 1980’s “Together,” its signature song. The group never regained its national prominence, but it has continued to work in one form or another for more than three decades.

It’s not easy keeping the flame alive. Though the band headlined a sold-out revival show last month at the Greek Theatre, it went on to play less glamorous gigs this month -- the Santa Fe Springs Swap Meet, the Beaumont Cherry Festival, the Norwalk Ramada Inn.

Tierra will surely struggle to find a wide audience for its new album, produced by guitarist and co-founder Rudy Salas, who wrote most of the tunes. The work may not break new ground, but it certainly underscores the enduring appeal of the band’s cool, cruising style. “Cafe” remains faithful to the trademark Tierra blend of catchy West Coast salsa, brassy swing, Santana-style guitar and, most of all, groovy R&B;, heavy on the doo-wop harmonies and swooning romanticism, which seems refreshingly old-fashioned.


Sure, it’s nostalgia. But the past can be a blast, if you let it. As Salas puts it in the sensual “Sex the Night,” “The music’s sounding good, exactly like it should.” Relax. Enjoy the vibe.


Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor) to four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.