||28 June 2010
|Mercer Street Records
||Hip hop, funk, salsa, fusion
Cross genre musical acts that incorporate politics into their mix don’t generally work.
Ozomatli are exceptions to the rule. Coming out of the multicultural melting pot that is East LA, the group have always produced a diverse medley of hip hop, salsa, dancehall, funk and old school rock/R&B. This time pop sensibilities are to the forefront with their latest release Fire Away.
Tony Berg’s production leaves a polished glint as his records with Aimee Mann and Bruce Hornsby will testify. The opener embodies the more radio friendly approach to great effect. The raucous 'Are You Ready?' driven by brass and drums, sways to a polyphonic carnival groove. Although they may come from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, Ozomatli is the sound of a tight musical co-operative where many instruments work in unison.
Unfortunately what makes the first song sit so easy breaks the back of the early part of the album. The hop hip and R&B summer vibe of '45' and 'It’s Only Paper' comes across like a combination of boyband social commentary with an unhealthy dose of Len (of 'Steal My Sunshine' fame) influences. The cleanness of the sound and the weak vocals ruin any materialistic assertion, however superficial, that the band may be attempting. ‘Money rules the world but it’s only paper...’ seems already crass and ever more so when heard through the ultra sheen of the music.
A change in direction is what’s called for. The raw virtuosity of the band delivers them from sinking blandness. 'Elysian Persuasion' takes as its template FM Rock and its funky soft rock breaks and beats call to mind peak form Lenny Kravitz. And that’s a compliment believe me.
"If the world can understand stand by your man"
One can only be won over by the craftsmanship and excellent pop structures of the fifth song 'Gay Vatos In Love'. The tone of 'Angel of Harlem' springs to mind: Contemporary band shows they can mix it with the greats. This swings, jangles and stays in the mind like only a good melody can. Supposedly the inspiration comes from the protests revolving around Prop 8 in California, and the murder of a transgender teen. Its impassioned vocals and turn of phrase combine to produce a perfect pop moment that can be read as much as a political statement as it can be enjoyed for its tunefulness.
'It’s Only Time' and 'Love Comes Down' show a softer, fragile side to Ozomatli. The former is a lullaby in its almost naive acoustic performance whereas the latter dumps the polished production for a ‘shoegaze’ dreamy tone and the light touches of a subtle keyboard.
Yet this being Ozomatli, eclecticism is the name of the game. 'Malagasy Shock' has them in full flight once more. Its concoction of Salsa, Celtic and Spanish rhythms tells the tale of singer and guitarist Raul Pacheco's near death experience when he was electrocuted on stage at a show in Madagascar during the group's work on behalf of the US Department of State as cultural ambassadors. Pacheco said "Sometimes you are shocked into realizing life must be lived with a profoundly energetic fervour." He added after pausing, "...and sometimes you are just actually shocked.”
The album ends on a high note with the strange eccentricity of 'Caballito'. This song is closer to a modern Ry Cooder than the pop that is overemphasized in what is otherwise an interesting jumble box of genres. Its Spanish lyrics and vocals compliment the jaunty accompaniment and sounds like a goodtime drinking song with every listen. Or maybe that’s me thinking of another band that defies expectations in the shape of the Pogues.
It’s a rare treat to find a band that fits the definition of eclectic without feeling disjointed. Ozomatli certainly fit the bill. The album carries its genre hopping supremely. Its positivity and energy propels at least half the set fervently. However it suffers from been overproduced and dragged down with an almost sickly gloss. Maybe the band, who have been seen as an emerging voice in cross ethnical relations in the Americas and beyond, strived for this ‘radio friendly’ sound to reach as many people as possible. This quest for spreading harmonious energy and political messages may earn some new fans and listeners but it may just about alienate some of their hardline and not so hardline comrades. This could be the price you pay for a shot at the mainstream. We will soon see.
- Tim Gannon