Every few years an artist releases a record that puts a modern dance club twist on the traditional sounds of a culture. From the bass-propped banjo of Rednex “Cotton-eye Joe” making a mockery of Americana to Edelweiss’s chart-topping “Bring Me Edelweiss” back in the late 80s, or Fatboy Slim’s recent resurrection of Elvis. This trope comes up all too frequently but usually runs its course in one single, or at least a single release. It goes without saying that there’s a lot to love about traditional music even without the modernization. After all, it would never have become so traditional if people for generations hadn’t embraced it. That is precisely the reason that projects like these are usually successful and usually appealing. Take something you know a great number of people already have an affinity for and dress it up in the sound of the day.
Camilo Lara, the principal producer behind Mexican Institute of Sound (notably also the president of the Mexican chapter of EMI) got started making holiday “best of” mixes for his friends. These mixes also included his own creations which sampled traditional mexican instrumentation, song structure and mariachi guitars and horns. He was then encouraged to take those remixes to the next level and start cutting his own CDs as Mexican Institute of Sound. Politico is the 4th such record.
Making this sort of traditional-meets-modern formula work is a difficult thing to do once, rare to see twice and Lara is now on his fourth record. This fact alone is indicative of a better than average formula. On this record it appears to be because he’s still aims for and succeeds best on his original material.
Politico begins with a rather simple little Cumbia-style organ-based melody interspersed with some pitched-up cat-calls—like a Mexican version of James Brown. Over that, the first appearance of old vinyl horn recordings—a staple for the rest of the record. While it builds up over the first few minutes and begins to sound like it might be going somewhere, it then starts meander and is then decomposed. There is something unfinished sounding about this track that makes it come off like an intro. It gives way to “Especulando”, which has a more mainstream electronic sound—simple breaks and a repetitious vocal sample. The hook is comprised of wavering electro warbles and around the middle of the song another layer of breaks really enriches it. This is the stand up and take notice moment where the record begins to sound like something that could be good. But once again this crescendo just seems to carry on at this point. One gets the impression that MIS is great at the build-up up but not so adept at conclusions. Eventually some of the beats just get stripped away revealing the looping synths which now just seem a little too off beat.
The traditional aspect comes on strong in “Revolución!”—a fast paced guitar and drum frenzy layered over with the albums first full-on hip-hop vocal delivery. The pace is countered by the lazy sounds of the horns which balance perfectly. The chorus calls out “Revolución! / Pow-pow-pow!” before heading straight back into the vocals again and it begins to feel like the records first real triumph but it’s over all-too soon. Then begins “México”, which I believe is the easy radio-single of the record. The anthem begins syncopated guitar stabs and bass climbing their way toward an unstoppable break groove. The pacing and the way the percussion slides immediately made me recall Saint Etienne’s amazing rendition of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”. But before you get there, the horns sing lazy afternoon siestas. Camilo’s layered, low and somewhat nasally vocals balance solidly against the groove. This is undoubtedly the hit track on the record. It went immediately into my ‘recent favourites’ playlist and I suspect I won’t be alone in that.
After “México”, “Es-Toy” seems like a total misfire. It may be the juxtaposition to the easy groove but this one just seems far too immediate and abstract. Everything here is just looping against a backdrop of dub vocals and a melancholy layering of synths, horns and accordions. There’s no particular melody to it and I was glad when it was over. “Más!” is redemptive—coming in much as “Revolución!” but this time with a rock guitar and the signature talking-rhyme vocal delivery. Clearly this is Camilo’s strength and the album so far gives the impression that it’s only when he strays too far into more instrumental electronica-styled territories that he begins to falter.
The second half of the record begins with the slowed down loop of a low-fi mariachi horn section and a nice urban groove. Once again it builds up slowly into layers of synths which border on annoying before finally being retracted again. This is already becoming a pattern on this record. “Se Baila” follows which narrowly avoids the same fate by having an interesting enough mix of beats and vocal samples. By switching it up every few bars, we avoid getting too boring on this one but it’s ultimately forgettable.
At just 48 seconds, “My Buddy @julps” could be the banal intro to a television gameshow. But I have to credit Camilo at the cleverness of using the ‘@’ symbol here because it was absolutely irresistible for me to punch this into my Twitter client and come up with Julien Placencia of the Mexico-based band Disco Ruido. This one minute of record space is clearly little more than a shout-out at the listeners expense, or perhaps to their benefit if you find something you like.
“Tipo Raro” brings us back to the winning formula of great traditional instrumentation samples and straight-ahead spoken vocal delivery. The organs here play well against the fast disco-style boom and snap. This track actually feels more authentic than many of the others on the record. If it could be said that each of the others were treated tongue-in-cheek, this one feels more like a pop song you might hear on Mexican radio. “Ritmo Internacional”—more faltering. Looped horn part, abstract breaks and hissing dub vocals which mercifully end in less than 2 minutes. “Cumbia Meguro” redeems us again with a great guitar loop and light-hearted sway. Though not as accessible as the earlier tracks and free of any vocals the overall composition makes for a nice outro just before “El Jefe”.
The final track brings all the elements together for one final throw-down which at this point feels familiar but enjoyable. To describe it to you further would be to repeat myself—much as it seems Camilo has here.
The album as a whole seems to have two faces, the strong radio-friendly singles crafted from well-produced traditional samples, strong backbeats, and vocals and the filler: half-hearted attempts at electronic mashups, playfully constructed but ultimately skippable. Thankfully the former outnumber the latter and the record is worth your time if only on the strength of those tracks. It wouldn’t be the first time a record was sold with a few great tracks and some filler in between—another universal tradition we can all relate to.