The Energy Box

Lots of people think Ricky Martin is a phony. Last year the local Denver alternative-press sourpuss called Ricky's music "watered-down," not Latin enough. The guy had trouble with the fact that "Livin' La Vida Loca" was written and produced by glam-metaller Desmond Child. (I don't know why glam comes across as water to this guy, or what's wrong with mixing together salsa and glam and surf guitar in a song. Maybe it's the surf that provides the water.)

And some doofus at the Calgary Sun wrote, "Ricky Martin is to Latin music what Boney M's 'Rasputin' was to Slavic culture." (Boney M was a German-Caribbean Eurodisco band that was huge around the world in the '70s and '80s. "Rasputin" had goofy Cossack chants and historical information, too: "Rah rah RAH-spoo-teen, lover of the Russian queen/There was a cat that really was gone.")

Andrew Sarris once said, "Robert Siodmak's Hollywood films were more Germanic than his German ones, and that is as it should be. Why would Germans want to look at Germanic films?" Of course, Sarris's wisecrack only goes so far. Fritz Lang's Hollywood films were far less Germanic than his German films (and far better than Siodmak's). Anyway, to most Anglos, "Latin music" brings to mind flamenco (more generally, Spanish guitar) and salsa and what's vaguely thought of as "mariachi": accordions and weeping trumpets. Ricky Martin doesn't do much in the "mariachi" styles, but you can't go 40 seconds on his new album, Sound Loaded, without hearing at least Spanish guitar or island horns or salsa piano.

photo: Pablo Alfaro

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Ricky Martin
Sound Loaded
Columbia
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But listen back to 1991, to Ricky's first solo album, released for the Spanish-language market. It has a lot of Romantically Slow And Swoony Songs In The International Style, as well as pretty Brazilian pop (translated from Portuguese to Spanish), disco pop, synth pop, and a strange (and uncharacteristically intense, for Ricky) reggae song called "Susana," which is the closest thing to what's thought of as an island rhythm on the entire album. No Spanish guitar. No Latin jazz, no mambo horns. No salsa. None, zero, nada, zilch, zip, keine, nichts. He does throw on a Spanish-language cover of Larry Williams's New Orleans romp "Bony Maroney," and on his second LP he does Spanish versions of Laura Branigan's disco stomp "Self Control" and—not having had enough of boneymen (or boogiemen?)—Boney M's disco pop "Hooray! Hooray! It's a Holi-Holiday." (That was maybe to add the Germanic element, as it's based on the old Bavarian hymn "Polly-wolly-doodle-all-the-day.")

My point isn't that Ricky's music has become more Latin over the years, merely that it's become more "Latin." "Maria," which he first did in 1995 for the Spanish-speaking audience, combines the three "Latin" elements—accordion, salsa horns and vocals, Spanish guitar—and it's a killer track. But—I'm surmising, without having been there—"Latin" may not have been what his fans noticed. They might have seen him becoming "adult" (as opposed to "teen idol"), "tough" (as opposed to "sweet"), "masculine" (as opposed to "for the little girls"). And there's another element in "Livin' La Vida Loca" in 1999 that wasn't on the 1991 album: hard rock. Or at any rate, rock that was harder than what he was doing before. And I don't really mean the surf-slinger guitar (though it's really cool!), but the beat and the way he puts "rock" pressure in his voice. So when he starts singing "Gotta gotta gotta la vida loca" against that surf guitar he might as well be going "Inna gadda da vida" like Iron Butterfly, but with a light touch against a poppy Latin backdrop. This is great music, and perhaps something never done before: Since when has hulking old Iron Butterfly been given such a light, swoony flavor?

Which brings me to the new album, most of which I like, but I'm surprising myself with what I like and don't like about it. What I don't like are the current single, "She Bangs," and two of the other three songs that resemble it, the ones that try to redo "Livin' La Vida Loca" (Latin Always Equals Energy) but with everything turned up a notch: more horns, more rock, too much bang and not enough song. But I do like the title track, "Loaded," which is in the loco-bang formula but smoother and a lot better; it just strolls from style to style and if you don't like how it's sounding, don't worry, in 20 seconds it'll change. For instance, a couple times amid its clamor it has a nice '60s folk-pop interlude (sort of like the Mamas & Papas or the Association) that lasts for only four bars, and it's charming.

There are three slow romantic songs, two of which are truly tuneful and the third of which is nice except for its awful awful awful stretch-your-arms-and-emote chorus. (And two and a half out of three isn't just a good proportion, it's a change in my worldview: If I start preferring slow songs to fast songs, what will I change next? Sexual preference? Species?) The remaining songs are shifty in a playful way: Like, how they begin usually doesn't define what they turn into. "One Night Man" starts out Arabic and becomes predominantly Caribbean; "Amor" starts moody and romantic and then evolves to full-throttle shout-and-response.

Ricky Martin's voice is pleasant but not all that strong, and it's rather plain to boot. Of course, one can say the same about Fred Astaire's, and Astaire is one of the great singers of the last century. But Astaire gave his voice an easy thoughtfulness, used conversational rhythms as if he were thinking up the words on the spot. Whereas Ricky is boxing himself into a role that calls for energy, and he's using that energy as a selling point, which means he's got to make like he's giving you el vocal loco, even when he isn't. He doesn't have the piercing or dominating voice that the role calls for, just as when he does the romantic swoony thing he doesn't have the necessary extravagance. He compensates by double-tracking vocals, pumping up arrangements, and getting background singers to climb the peaks. I have nothing against any of these strategies—the goal is to make good records, not to demonstrate vocal prowess. But the quality I like most in his voice is its gentleness. Sometimes the gentleness manages to predominate, despite its being at odds with the material (and as I said above about "Livin' La Vida Loca," this is an achievement, to combine gentleness and energy). Sometimes the gentleness is overpowered and abandoned and the result is wooden. But even then there's an interesting and occasionally exciting fusion or concoction going on, though I'm not sure it's been achieved yet or where it's headed, or if this is a man who can do it.

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