Since their popularity exploded in the early `90s, Mexico City's Cafe Tacuba has become one of Latin rock's pre-eminently revolutionary bands.
They began as a lively fusion of ska, norteno and punk rock, but over the years drifted into an impressive but sometimes unfocused experimentalism. Their new album, "Sino" (Universal), is their first since 2003's "Cuatro Caminos" but it recalls the extraordinary creative energy of 1994's "Re," an album that helped put Latin alternative on the map.
Cafe Tacuba's artistic ambitions are immediately realized on "Sino's" first single, "Volver a Empezar" ("To Start All Over Again"). Clocking in at an epic 7 minutes and 43 seconds, the song has a classic rock feel, with shifting thematic elements and a surreal middle section reminiscent of "Pet Sounds"-era Beach Boys.
The title seems to be emblematic of the band's need to recharge its batteries, but the video illustrates a kind of rock soap opera. Bassist Quique Rangel is seen being tempted by a Mexican rock babe in a club, then suffering a heart attack. "If I could start over again," the narrator sings, apparently to a girlfriend he's wronged, "I wouldn't have time to make things right."
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"We knew we would be challenging the formats of the radio stations in Mexico with the song," said Rangel in a phone interview. "But we insisted that the song represented the attitude of the album."
"Sino" has its share of conceptual vagueness - the title could mean "if not," and the wavelike cover art suggests a yin-yang opposition between "yes" and "no" as well as the mathematical sine curve. But although the songs are existential thought-poems, the attitude here is all about rock.
"On `Sino,' we're the closest we've been to pure rock," Rangel said. "It's influenced by the music we grew up with."
"Volver a Comenzar" features a synthesizer riff that recalls Joy Division and Depeche Mode. The punk rock of the band's earlier years returns on "De Acuerdo" and "Cierto o Falso," and "Esta Vez" climaxes with a riff reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's acoustic folk-blues.
While lead singer Ruben Albarran is still at the songs' emotional core, each band member takes turns on lead vocals and produces some spectacular harmonies, particularly on the Motown-esque love song "Quiero Ver." Albarran's trademark vocal style, a lighthearted take on Johnny Rotten, is most effective on "El Outsider," where he declares his allegiance to no one, and "Gracias," a sarcastic appreciation of the spread of democracy through globalization. (Albarran was recently quoted as saying he thought last year's presidential election in Mexico was rigged.)
But although Cafe Tacuba has succeeded in recapturing its conceptual, lyrical peak with "Sino," its most striking qualities are its intoxicating aural pleasures. Perennial producer Gustavo Santoalalla has something to do with this, but credit the maturing Mexican fab four with fashioning a stunning palette of melodic and dissonant sounds that rank with the best of rock in any language.