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Cyclical soundworld

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Mexico City quartet Café Tacuba seems to be well acquainted with the concept of "mañana" (literally "tomorrow," colloquially "later"). Over the course of the quartet’s 10-year existence, they’ve made not rushing an artform. And we, the world’s listeners, are luckier for it.

The evidence? Though the quartet had been regularly packing the house at shows in their native Mexico City and were a significant blip on the radar of the A&R folk of many a label, the band didn’t approach the label reps who had been coming to their shows for more than a year. After all, they didn’t have to – they were one of the most bootlegged bands in Mexico!

But, in keeping with the band’s trademark duality (commercial/avant-garde; structured/free-form; light-as-air/crunch-punky; reverent to cultural roots/embracing music’s international nature; grounded/dreamlike, etc.), they’ve released five albums’ worth of material since 1992 (one of which was a record of obscure covers, 1994’s Avalancha de Exitos). This was a breathtaking pace for what have been consistently breathtaking records, mixing in compositions that seamlessly metamorphose elements of XTC, the Violent Femmes, krautrock, Mexican folk, punk-unto-son-unto-sing-songy pop tunes. The tracks, particularly on Café Tacuba’s most recent double album, Reves/Yo Soy (literally, "Backward/I Am"), intimate both a short attention span muy moderno and an appreciation for the endless possibilities that the global exchange of sounds and cultural wonders offers a band of artists – particularly one willing to take the time to properly harness these opposites.

One gets a simultaneous sense in Café Tacuba’s music of Borges and comic books, Paz and Coca-Cola, sci-fi and melancholy – all of this without any cloying cut-and-paste gimmickry or unsubtle irony. In fact, subtlety is the name of the game.

You’d just better drop any prejudice you’re dragging about regarding just exactly what "Mexican music" sounds like. Café Tacuba is the sound of a post-post-modern Mexico City, one of the world’s largest urban centers. The cultural sprawl of this subtropical megalopolis and – a world of rock music besides – has found its way into the music of these four former art students and residents of the city’s suburban streets.

To be sure, founding members Ruben Albarrán (aka Pinche Juan, Cosme and Anónimo) and Joselo Rangel met and bonded over a mutual admiration for the Cure. After Joselo’s brother, Quique, and Emmanuel "Meme" Del Real were recruited, the band began blending Cuban rhythms and punk rock (still a hallmark for the rock en Español masses that Café Tacuba moved past before they even laid down tracks). But soon they found Mexico City’s sprawl and their country’s musical roots more intriguing, and incorporated acoustic folk instruments into their heady brew. The experimentation hasn’t stopped since.

Once a badly kept secret among music critics and folks who latched on early to the rock en Español tag that has since become ubiquitous as an easy marketing gimmick, CaféTacuba’s design for their homegrown music has never been laid out as vastly or as clearly as it is now evidenced on the group’s new Reves/Yo Soy.

And there’s a design here. The band originally gave Warner Bros. an album of instrumentals, Reves, which included collaborations with the renowned Kronos Quartet, electro-dance-rock excursions, brief treatises on classical clarinet, acoustic guitars and haunting, familiar-like-a-dream themes. (Let’s not forget: Warners is the same label that let loose the Flaming Lips’ amazing and conceptual works, Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin.)

The reaction from these brave label employees? "A temporary lapse of autism" at the Warner listening meeting, as writer Oscar Sarquiz F. describes it. To soften the blow, Café Tacuba went into the studio and recorded 15 songs (spread out over 52 tracks on the CD) with vocals, song structure and other amenities to soothe the worried record label execs. These tracks were compositions that the band had begun to conjure while touring in support of the breakthrough record RE, but hadn’t the energy to finish in the studio. This is where the covers record Avalancha enters the picture.

For the Reves sessions, Café Tacuba went into the studio and flipped the script on themselves. The members switched instruments, shared songwriting duties and, when it came time to record Yo Soy, vocals too.

When Café Tacuba takes the stage live, then, it’s a diverse affair, touching on rock, pop, improvisation and beyond, with each member bringing his own musical personality to the whole.

But Reves/Yo Soy is an international album in the truest sense, a Rosetta stone to understanding music that has, in the past, been "otherized" by the terminology used to define it, be that "world music," "Latin rock," "exotica," whatever. The meaning hasn’t necessarily been the universality of music, but rather a further compartmentalization of music that can then be picked apart for its novelty and useful pieces. But Café Tacuba’s universal language is no cliché; it’s the world in which we all live.

There, simply, isn’t a grupo musical more simultaneously emblematic of and in constant defiance against the whole rock en Español tag. Café Tacuba is to this vaguely defined movement what the Beatles were to the broad movement of artful pop in the late ’60s: catalysts, innovators if not always inventors, emblematic of the artful endeavors of many others who follow closely in their wake and ambitious as all hell. They’ve even got a George Martin figure on board in longtime producer Gustavo Santoalalla, an Argentinian musician-turned-producer-turned-collaborator.

If RE was a Sgt. Pepper’s-esque affair, then Reves/Yo Soy is this band’s White Album, chock full of idiosyncrasies for a coming age where multiculture is the rule and the rules are made to be broken. Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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