Look up “sell out” in the music dictionary, and you’ll likely see a photo of Carlos Santana, the sixties guitar legend-turned- teenybopper pop songsmith. Ever since his 1999 mainstream breakthrough “Supernatural” (which might as well describe the album’s phenomenal sales), he’s been the artist the music intelligentsia loves to hate — a peerless talent, beyond question, but Michelle Branch? Please. His latest CD, “All That I Am,” continues in the “Supernatural” vein — a slick pop confection, bursting with florid production and ostentatious guest stars. It will no doubt make a great dart board for the staff at PitchForkMedia.com.
Still, it’s hard to fault the guy for wanting to stay relevant as he nears the two-thirds century mark. Put the compositions on “All That I Am” into the hands of a lesser talent, and they’d just fall flat. But under Santana’s meticulous production, they scream (Stephen Tyler on “Just Feel Better”), scowl (Joss Stone on “Cry Baby Cry”), and yes, sometimes fall flat (Bo Bice on “Brown Skin Girl”). So get past the grandpa Carlos vibe, because there’s more happening on “All That I Am” than Santana’s latest paycheck.
First of all, the guy can still yowl like a banshee. Play “Hermes,” the opening track, once or twice, followed by the instrumental “Trinity” about forty-five times, and you’ll see what I mean. “Trinity,” featuring Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, is pure stadium-guitar orgasm, a multi-octave, sky-scraping explosion of Peter Green growls and Jimmy Page howls. In a perfect world, alternative radio would be all over this track. “Hermes” works along the same lines, but trades in the British blues-fusion act for a taste of something spicier. Opening with a campy organ line, it launches into a tribal bum rush of percolating drums and wickedly wailing guitar. I’ll swallow Rob Thomas and Michelle Branch if they’re what it takes to get the kids to listen to such classic guitar godliness.
Speaking of Michelle Branch, she’s here again, let out of the broom closet she seems to have been hiding in since her forgettable sophomore effort. “I’m Feeling You,” the first single, is definitive proof that Branch really is the oldest fourteen-year-old in the world. With lyrics like “I’m riding the highs/ I’m diggin’ the lows/ ‘Cause at least I feel alive,” the fun, flashy song will go over great with the junior-high beach-party crowd (and their parents, which ensures its long shelf life on the Billboard charts). As on “The Game of Love,” their 2002 collaboration, Santana phones in a guitar line from his bathtub on a song he obviously could care less about.
The pop-poop formula works better on the Stephen Tyler pair-up, “Just Feel Better.” Tyler’s bazillion-decibel voice threatens to overwhelm Santana’s soaring guitar licks, but by the time the song reaches its country-style chorus, they’ve got the give-and-take down pretty well. As for Tyler, the man could make “Jingle Bells” sound like Puccini, so it’s no surprise that he takes the typically maudlin lyrics (“Tell me what to do/ You know I can’t see through/ The haze around me”) and smashes them over the head with a wah-wah passion sledgehammer. Anticipate numerous attempts to hit those impressive high notes in showers across the country when the song is released as a single.
The latter fourth of the album, featuring Bo Bice and Los Lonely Boys on two songs that should have never seen the light of day, is an unfortunate detour on the way back to “Da Tu Amor,” a ’70s-disco-meets-Latin-salsa reminder that all is not sacrilegious in the world of Santana. On the feisty jam, reminiscent of some of his best early work, he lets fly with wild guitar elation. And here, he isn’t competing against Stephen Tyler or Michelle Branch or whoever else makes their way through his perpetually revolving door. Though Santana might need the young stars and pretty songs to feel vital, all good old grandpa Carlos really needs is a pair of drums and an emotive six-string.