In America, Latin pop has always had the dubious distinction of being simultaneously exploited and pigeonholed. It’s a genre straddling an uncomfortable fence with Ricky Martin’s bon bon on one side and love-sick accordion ballads on the other. Yet from the bowels of a decidedly anti-MTV radio station in Santa Monica comes an album that delivers a massive body blow to both camps: “KCRW Presents: Sounds Eclectico” is a live compilation of some of the hippest, freshest, and yes, most eclectic, Latin sounds out there. Featuring artists as diverse as the Brazilian Girls and Ozomatli, with musical styles ranging from traditional to hip-hop to alternative rock, “Sounds Eclectico” proves that there’s much more to Latin pop than Shakira, Daddy Yankee and the Macarena.
The music is truly so varied that it’s hard to think of “Sounds Eclectico” as a single, cohesive album. Most of the vocals are in Spanish, but lapse into French and English now and again, and most of the artists are Latino, but the distinctly Anglo names of Harcourt and Cookman take producers’ credit (with liner artwork by Beck, of all people). In the end, it all comes back to geography: every song was recorded live in the KCRW studio for “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” a nationally syndicated radio program renown for spinning the freshest mix of hip talent before anyone else.
Yet this isn’t your usual low-rent indie pow wow — the sounds are crisp and full, the production immaculate. For the most part, the artists perform note-faithful renditions of some of their most interesting material, with some breezy improv thrown in for good measure. Try to catch the hint of sass in Brazilian Girls’ lead singer Sabinna Scuibba’s normally waifish purr on “Homme,” or the stoner giggles bubbling up under the opening notes of Manu Chao’s “Clandestino.” The expected ten-minute drum solos are mercifully absent, and for the most part, the album strikes the right balance between sonic structure and jam-session freewheeling.
The best tracks combine vanguard production techniques with a distinctly Latin flavor — don’t worry about seeing any of these music videos on Telemundo. Julieta Venegas’ “Lo Que Pidas” is an early standout; with its finger-snapping drum beat and catchy keyboard riff, it has the rhythmic backbone of a pop radio hit — think Sheryl Crow meets Maroon 5. But toss in a little accordion and lyrics which are (undoubtedly) in Spanish, and it’s Latin pop through and through. Meanwhile, the minimalist acoustic guitar on “El Pianista del Gueto de Varsovia” perfectly complements Jorge Drexler’s lush and weary voice, the ideal Latin foil to the legions of overdone white guys with guitars (it could easily put John Mayer to shame).
This intimate live setting doesn’t work as well on some of the more electric-influenced tracks, notably Thievery Corporation’s “Shadows of Ourselves” and Plastilina Mosh’s “Baretta 89.” On “Shadows,” Thievery Corporation combine their trademark too-stoned-to-function new-age vibe with some eerily distant Latin vocals, but the track just doesn’t work amidst the album’s more playful and festive hues. On the flip side, the lively, head-bopping beat of “Baretta” is tainted by the geek-chic synthesized vocals, which sound like an overcooked Radiohead after a rough night out. It’s also a shame that the effervescent, whip-crack Brazilian drum beat of Kinky’s “Sol (Batucada)” gets bogged down in a mire of electronic buzzes and artificial wave effects toward the end of the song, ruining what could have been the best Samba jam this side of Rio.
But for all its experimental missteps, the album never feels like an oddity — even the folksy hat dance-styled “Carabina .30-.30” by Los Lobos is surprisingly accessible, with its charmingly understated guitarron and emotive, Don Quixote-esque vocals. It’s even a delight to hear it segue effortlessly into the Latin hip-hop stylings of Ozomatli, which couldn’t be further afield stylistically, but nevertheless fits together with “Carabina.” On “Saturday Night,” Ozomatli bounce frisky, booming trumpets against a raunchy, clanking beat — incredible it happened with no cut-and-splice required. The song is the only one recorded entirely in English, though the throwaway lyrics (“Dip, dive, socialize/ Get ready for the Saturday night”) make one pine for meaningless lyrics breathtakingly sung in exotic, sensual Spanish tones.
It may not be the savior of Latin pop, but “Sounds Eclectico” is to Americanized Latin music what Tajin is to Taco Bell, what Mafalda is to Speedy Gonzales: just a little taste of something real.