It’s a nice luxury for a band when its members can afford to get bored by their own success, but it’s a tricky decision what to do next: Break up? Blow your head off? Coast along and get some big fat checks? Or change your style completely and go another way? Mexico’s Café Tacuba faced this problem a little earlier than most bands: they had only released two real albums when they got sick of themselves. But these were not two ordinary albums — they were, and remain, landmarks in Latin music.
The band Café Tacuba — which sometimes spells their name Café Tacvba for that added “Latin” touch — is named for a small and ancient restaurant in Mexico City, famous for its mixing of native Mexican cuisine with other culinary traditions from around the world. Four hyperbolic graphic design students kept meeting there to talk about music in the late 1980s: bassist Enrique Rangel and his guitarist brother Josélo, keyboard-playing Emmanuel del Reál, and skinny little singer Ruben Albarrán. They took their agenda from the menu of the restaurant: to mix all the British and American new wave bands they loved with Mexican music, sounds, and subjects.
Their first album, self-titled, came out in 1992 to great acclaim. “Noche Oscura”, the opening blast, was a perfect synthesis: punk energy and speed-folk, a Pixies-like surf-guitar breakdown, and a hint of Aztec in the melody. But from the very first, Café Tacuba was out to prove that they could do anything — “Maria” was Spandau Ballet bossa nova with a haunting accordion line, and “Rarotonga” had a ska-mariachi thing happening that sounded a whole lot like fellow chilangos Maldita Vecindad, only not quite as hard-core. But the gauntlet had been thrown down: Café Tacuba the album served notice that Café Tacuba the band was here, and wasn’t going away anytime soon.
The secret to los Tacubas is not the rock-solid bass of Quique; it’s not Josélo’s nimble guitar work; it’s not Emmanuel’s work on piano and organ and synth and accordion and whatever the hell else he plays. And it’s certainly not Ruben’s voice, which turns as many people off as it does bring them in. Personally, I don’t hear anything wrong with it; maybe his voice just hits people wrong or something. I think Albarrán has a great vocal attack — it’s a punk-rock voice, at heart, and while a lot of ranchero stylists might quail at such a scratchy nasal hard-working instrument being employed on a Mexican recording, it gives this group a grit that many other groups can’t touch. He sounds like an everyman, which might be why he called himself just “Pinche Juan” on the first album. (Oh, yeah . . . for those of you scoring at home, you’re right: no drummer. Machines do that.)
But the real key to Café Tacuba is the fact that all four members write beautiful songs. This was shown off to great effect on their second album, the world-beating 1994 release called Re. In almost exactly one hour, the group takes on virtually every single musical style in the world and nails each one. We go straight from Albarrán’s propulsive 6/8 hook-laden “El Aparato”, with its opening “Ayyyyyyiiiiii!” and its sweet soulful bridge, straight into the power-norteño of Del Real’s “La Ingrata”, in which Albarrán — now called “Cosme” — gives one of his greatest performances by stretching out the vocal lines farther and farther as the song goes along until you can actually hear his vocal cords fraying. (Apparently, this song was the source of much controversy in the Mexican music world — Monterrey rockers El Gran Silencio were convinced that Albarrán was mocking norteño music. They might have been right, too . . . but it’s loving mockery.) It all sounds perfect, too, courtesy of legendary Argentinean producer Gustavo Santoalalla.
“La Ingrata” segues directly into the clavinetty funk of “El Ciclón”, which then gives way to the big-time hardcore crunch of “El Borrego”. This track is nothing short of revelatory: Del Real’s lyrics show the split at the heart of the modern Mexican man: “Soy anarquista / Soy neonazista / Soy un esquinjed / Y soy ecologista / Soy peronista / Soy terrorista / Capitalista y también soy pacifista”. (Bad translation by me: “I am an anarchist / I’m a neo-Nazi / I’m a skinhead / And I’m an ecologist / I’m a Peronist / I’m a terrorist / I’m a capitalist and also I’m a pacifist”.) Of course, you can’t be all these things, which is part of the point; divided psyches make for fun records!
But the album is more than this. It flows like a river (check the perfect segue between “Pez” and “Verde”), it pops like soda (“El Metro” should have been an international top ten single), it’s deep as Pocopapetl (it’s weird as hell (who gave that mariachi band acid on “El Fin de la Infancia”?), and it’s pretty much perfect. Why the hell any formerly reputable critic (*cough* Chuck Eddy *cough*) thought this album anything like overrated is beyond me, but critics screw up all the time. What’s really beyond my ken is why this album is down to bargain-basement prices in every record store I find it in. Re, which has been called “the White Album of rock en español, should be required listening for everyone, dammit; it’s that good.
But if your second album is compared to the White Album, what do you do for an encore? You freak out, is what you do. Every member spent some time hanging with other musicians, which helped a little, but mostly they just kind of sat around wondering what the hell they could do to follow up on a huge critical and commercial success of a sophomore album. Finally, they decided to gamble a bit — 1996 saw the release of Avalancha de Exitos (“Avalanche of Hits”, a dead-on parody of Mexican greatest-hits album titles). This “album” consisted of seven songs by other artists, mostly Mexicans. Some of the tracks are deconstructions, some are more straight-on, but all are examples of a band at the height of their power: “Chilanga Banda”, the first single, was a huge hit. They could do no wrong, and embarked on a big ol’ tour called, confusingly, “Chéverecachaimachochidoché”. No, I don’t know what it means either but I bet it looked cool as hell on the banner.
But all this success didn’t make los Tacubas feel any more secure about their musical future. So they just mostly disappeared. Here’s the story: they pulled a classic rock hermit move and sequestered themselves with their instruments and a recorder and played themselves some stuff that was about as far away from commercial pop as they could. These instrumentals, named for numbers, turned out pretty freaky: “3” sounds as much like Tortoise and Dick Dale as anything they’ve ever done, “5” is built around a classical guitar melody figure but gets all electroed and dubbed out, and “6” is a dead-on impression of Robert Fripp’s 1980s work with League of Gentlemen. They brought these demos to Santoalalla, who said “Hell, guys, there’s nothing wrong with these,” so they kept going. One of their compositions, “10”, is built around the stomping footsounds of the dance troupe (deep breath here) La Compañia Nacional de Danza Folclórica del Instituto Nacional de Belles Artes; another, “5.1”, is a clarinet-quartet remake of “5”. They even bring in the good ol’ Kronos Quartet for a song called “M.C.” Great stuff, bold and daring and everything a rock band is supposed to be. They called it Reves: not only Spanish for “backwards”, but, y’know, spell “Reves” backwards and see whatcha get. Exactly.
Of course Warners, the record company, balked. Of course they demanded some actual hits, or at least some actual “songs” that sounded like “Café Tacuba”. That’s what record companies do. But they were cool, though — they said “Give us what we need, and we’ll release this avant-garde shit too.” Back to the lab, and everyone got into full pretty-pop mode. This project, which ended up being called Yosoy (equivalent to “Iam” except it’s also a cool-ass palindrome), contained their most personal work ever: fourteen real songs, at least three by each, and all stunning.
It opens with Joe Rangel’s “El Padre”, a wonderfully melancholy song about waking up and realizing that you are your father, something that has happened to every man in the world. Del Real’s “La Locomotora” (which they sang for Conan O’Brien) is a hooky rocky philosophical tract: “¿Quien conduce el gran locomotor?” (“Who is driving The Big Train?”) Quique’s “La Muerte Chiquita” is the most beautiful song anyone’s ever written, a stunning dirgewaltz that really really resembles “M.C.” from the other record. (Maybe this gives the lie to the idea that all those other songs were composed first?) And Albarrán, now known as Amparo Tonto Medardo In Lak’ ech — as opposed to his “NRU” moniker on Reves — pulls out some stops with his funky “El Ave” and “Guerra”, which could easily fit in on Reves There is also the added bonus of seeing your CD player format 52 tracks, because “Arboles Frutales” and “Bicicleta” are both divided into a shitload of unnecessary numbers before the record closes with “Lento”, Josélo’s solo voz/guitarra workout.
They cannot really possibly exist, a band that can pull off both Reves and Yosoy . . . can they? Well, they do, and they did. Quique’s lyrics to his song “El Hombre Impasible” might hold a key, here: “Soy el imposible hombre impasable”, which can be interpreted “I am the impossible, impassible man”. Multiply that by cuatro, and you have Café Tacuba: four impossibly talented men who are unlikely to be passed as musicians and experimenters anytime soon.
Last year saw the release of the annoyingly backward-chronologied greatest hits comp Tiempo Transcurrido, which collects things nicely if that’s all you want to hear from the group that might well be North America’s Greatest Band. But take some time with ’em and purchase the original albums, wontcha? Because they’ve disappeared again, and no one really seems to know where. My guess? Back in the studio, layin’ it down with Santoalalla, readying a new assault on the staid old world of music and themselves. And you gotta love a band that does that.