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Not race men enough for rock en español hardliners, too obstructive for Starbucks comps, and too smiley for the alt crowd, Café Tacuba would have to make big changes to become the Next Cosa Grande. While watching them headline the Watcha Festival in August of 2000 in New York, such changes seemed unlikely, God bless 'em. They sounded a little dinky with their acoustic instruments and beat box, even when leader-singer Ruben Albarran blew his voice up like a Macy's Parade balloon. Molotov acted more like a headliner with their big-chested norteño-meets-Limp Bizkit, but the Mexican pop playing on the PA between sets trumped every band. When the crowd approved, the flags came out and the crowd snaked up and down, singing like one big barrio. Nationalism and big, big hooks = el dinero. Molotov's current MTV border politics hit, "Frijolero," suggests they were taking notes: "Don't call me gringo, you fucking beaner." Café Tacuba would never write such a button-pushing song, because it wasn't rock's symbolic power that made these Mexico City design school students start a band in 1989. They're racked in the rock section, somewhat arbitrarily, because they do what they feel like doing, whenever. They're a straight-up art band.
A review stickered to Café Tacuba's new, fifth album, Cuatro Caminos, compares it to Radiohead's Kid A; other critics have gone for "Mexican Pogues" and "Mexican Beatles." All distort Tacuba's motivations and charms. Hipsters who like their art bands to truck in melancholy and reach for the ungraspable will find Tacuba impossibly cheerful and energetic. The band can admit digital anomie, but only as a 20-second intro before the lead-off "Cero y Uno," a lusty tune telling you to toss your Blackberry: "Zero and one . . . I don't know either if you really exist . . . the only way is to travel to where you are." Done à la mode, this sentiment would probably be rendered as a langorous, four-note death whinge, sung in Hopelandic. Tacuba, instead, are just hopeful, again and again.
Try "Hoy es," for example. Translated, roughly, the words are: "Today is the most amazing day, the most beautiful ever. There is green, red, and yellow, blue, purple, white. . . . There is whatever you are looking for." Who Tacuba recall, more than a little, is Talking Heads. Sweet nerds like these find their own interests sufficient, so the backdrop switches from acoustic ballads to ska to unconvincing punk to soundtrack sprawl, just because. For Tacuba, disjunct noises and surrealist tropes are sympathetic to energy and melody and jumping; they're not just paths back to undergrad sulks. Authenticity, thank Dios, is simply not a concern here. Andget the Big Suit readyRubén Albarrán is silly. The second song on Cuatro Caminos, "Eo," contains whistling!
But Tacuba have worked with Beck, and he's silly too, right? Oh right, he's sad now. And since Tacuba's composition for Kronos Quartet's Nuevo wasn't silly at all, the marketing department has its work cut out. Expect them to lead with the American angle for Cuatro Caminos. In addition to long-running producer Gustavo Santaolalla, Tacuba worked with producers Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev) and Andrew Weiss (Ween), as well as actual drummers Joey Waronker (Beck) and Victor Indrizzo (Beck). The net effect is less than you might expect. A drummer will change the live show for the better, most likely, but on record this difference is often negligible. As producers, Weiss makes everyone play together in a clean, convincing Real Band way in "Recuerdo Prestado," and Fridmann adds that big fake-Bonham drum sound from The Soft Bulletin in "Encantamiento Inútil," but Tacuba already had an Eno in the woodpile. AllTacuba albums are studiolicious, and Santaolalla is still best at shadowing the band's zig-zag desires.
And rememberthey made the rock en español Kid A in 1999, before Kid A. The gorgeous Réves/Yo Soy was a two-disc set split between vocal songs and instrumentals that channeled everything good about a passel of English tea-sippers and Italian composers through Tacuba's vigorous machine. And watch the title: Backwards/I Am. With everybody else rocking soundtrack bands, they've gone back to peppy new wave. But, wait, that's popular now, right? Except Tacuba rarely sing about sex. Or money. Or robots who like sex and money.
Cuatromay be closer to "normal" guitar rock than previous records, but what everybody will notice is how good the vocals sound. And since art bands often violate their own conceits for fun, it isn't surprising that Café Tacuba were magnificent last Tuesday at the Bowery Ballroom, every inch a major band. With touring drummer Luis Ledezma behind them, they maintained their stamp-club nerdiness while making the crowd bounce like an Elephant Man video. Albarrán wore a light blue jacket and skinny tie, like he'd jumped out The Breakfast Club, and the band pushed lots of older, ska-flavored material. But the new songs sounded best, thick and full of open-throated joy. They may end up breaking here anyway, just to see what it's like. ¿Porqué no?