Various Artists: The Rough Guide to Latin Psychedelia

[23 May 2013]

By Nathan Wisnicki

Not to put too fine a point on it, but it’s kind of a magical feeling when you discover an artifact from the counterculture that you didn’t know about. I mean, even if it’s not an impeccable piece of work, a document from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s can behold not only its era’s buoyant optimism that everyone knows and talks about, but an (ahem) endless newness in its idealistic purity. There’s the feeling of receiving an idea, or strand of behavior, in its raw and romantic form, except you don’t just sense that but also the knowledge that the idea has, by this point in time, coagulated into whatever decadent form it’s inhabiting now.

Why bring this up? Well, because the music on Rough Guide’s 57 billionth (conservatively estimated) compilation of a particular strand of (*shudder*) “world music” is simply at its best — and its best is quite good — when it rests in the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Which it usually does. Considering that the comp’s subject here is Latin psychedelia, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. But though the aptness of that p-word is a little questionable — much of this stuff is just fairly commercial (and fairly good) dance music, specifically Peruvian dance music, with some fuzzy guitar tones — the mind-expansions you may take as an implication are subtler than you might expect, if they’re even present at all. In other words, anyone expecting a lot of concentric swirls of acid-fried guitar will be disappointed. Also, in typical Rough Guide fashion, most of these artists are so obscure that you don’t even have to feel particularly guilty for not knowing most of them. (Awesome!)

Which leads to my cunning and razor-sharp observation of the unifying theme here: rhythm! And it really is that simple. The hooks and riffs — which do possess some form of (ahem) “kaleidoscopic skewness” whether in form or in tone — are the kind you’ll feel (or not) within the first few seconds of the song. These cuts reel you in quick, maybe with an invigorated vocal chant and a hard salsa, cumbia, or rumba beat, and you’re either compelled to bob along or else your attention wanders fast. There’s no middleground with these songs: either you dance the whole way through or you don’t. And usually you will.

It’s best to take the package on a cut-by-cut basis, lest you fall into the trap of taking this stuff too seriously like I probably already have. Worth noting immediately is that the version of Latin Psychedelia you’ll find in stores is probably a two-discer, with the second disc given over to a long-forgotten Peruvian band from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s called Los Destellos. Now, while Los Destellos seem to have a small cult following and probably deserve the full reissue treatment, they fill up a second disc (and one track on the first) for a pretty transparent reason: of all the groups represented here, they’re easily the most similar to the jammy, trippy-but-mellow strand of the standard American psychedelia that us North Americans are so used to — particularly the Californian/Grateful Dead strand. Basically, Los Destellos — along with the two lovably corny English-sung throwaways at the very beginning, by comparative chart stars Joe Cuba and Johnny Rivera (respectively) — are what’s selling the ‘psychedelia’ label here. But that’s okay, because they’re a solid group, often instrumental, with some particularly sitar-like electro-buzzings of wah-wah guitar. They have a decent sense of melody, too, not just in “Noche de Garua” (linked earlier in this review) but also in the unpredictably creepy-crawly guitar licks of “Guajira psicodélica”, the communal verses of “La Cumbia del Sol”, and the laid-back beach wanderings of (yet more) guitar in the “Boogaloo del Perro” instrumental, which breaks unexpectedly into an even more laid-back section and kinda feels like a South American version of The Tornados. While the 13 Destellos tracks on the second disc might be too much blatant padding, exemplary of the inconsistency of a lot of these groups on an album basis, the good ultimately outweighs the bad, and they seem to be the friendliest, most inclusive band here.

The first disc is where you’ll find most of the gold, though. You’ll get the usual revivalists that Rough Guide likes to include, some essential and some disposable: the wonderful “Olvidalo”, by funky Texans Brownout, features a killer horn riff that just keeps developing and getting tighter and richer as the song goes on, culminating in a fantastic final minute complete with vocal and organ mixes that totally fooled me into thinking the song was from the late ‘60s. There’s also a nicely portentous bass line in Ocote Soul Sounds’ “En el Temblor”, led by TV on the Radio collaborator and multi-talent Martín Perna, and, on the other end of the quality scale, the just-plain annoying “Number 17” by usually respectable Brooklynites Chicha Libre, who sound practically like ironics here, too light and flimsy in tone to be nearly as hypnotic or trancelike as they clearly want to be, what with their wobbly vocals and ghastly keyboard tones.

Usually, though, the comp stays pretty focused around the counterculture years. Sometimes pure melody provides the momentum, as in Los Nombres’ infectiously catchy horn fills in “Todos” (note the guitar peeking out), the sheer over-the-topness of the almost Motown-indebted riff of Los Texao’s fuzzed-out “La Pelea del Gobernador”, and the corny openers I mentioned earlier. More often, however, it’ll be the hard insistence of the rhythms: Americans Wild Wind let out some pretty infectious cowbell and mix it with more Californian psychedelic guitar bendings in 1974’s “A Drink or Two”; Afrosound, a group on the blatantly commercial Colombian dance label Discos Fuentes and whose every LP cover featured a picture of a scantily-clad women or their buttocks (just sayin’), have a two-drummer thing going on that drives the fairly mindless chant into your brain until you have no choice but to groove with it; Spiteri’s “Campesina” catches you off-guard with a chord progression that’s not just danceable but practically proto-punk, just as you think the material is starting to wind down; Frankie Dante’s “Dame un Tipi” is probably the most immediately fun song here (which is saying a lot), complete with ridiculous kissy-kiss samples over some pretty savage guitar funk and another killer horn hook. (The drummers are uniformly fantastic through the whole package.)

There are lazy cuts, sure, and once again that just accentuates the inconsistency of these artists on more than a sampling basis. The backing vocals on Los Pakines’ “Tomalo O Dejalo” sound awfully familiar even though their washed-out fatigue is clearly intentional, and the intro to the Conjunto el Opio track sounds like an overwrought television theme to a cancelled children’s superhero show before the fuzz kicks things up a notch. And yet excepting the Chicha Libre cut, all the tracks on Latin Psychedelia boast details that are at least interesting — even if they turn out to not be worth the initial interest. Hell, even the safe vibraphones and brassy doo-wop backing vocals of Joe Cuba’s “Psychedelic Baby” (one of the two aforementioned cornballers) give the drums more room to be a little more anxious, and the game show vibe of the repeating riffs in Juan Pablo Torres’ “Pastel en Descarga” ultimately compels. Likewise, the horns in Johnny Rivera’s “Cloud Nine” (the other cornballer) sound at first like utter crap, but further listens reveal that they’re bending in an almost Moog-like way, a tweaked outer consciousness rooted in rhythm. (If you will.)

As I’ve already mentioned that there aren’t many profound unifying themes that tie this stuff together (other than those fantabulous rhythms, of course), I feel compelled to talk about 1973’s “Noche de Garua” some more. Damn, what a lovely piece of music that is. With clean, moist guitar tones peeking through the spoken dialogue like sun puddling through a sparse forest, it’s the kind of track where you aren’t sure where it’s gonna go from moment to moment…and yet every move that’s made feels delightfully inevitable. How Los Destellos managed to do that I have no idea. All I know is that there’s something about those summery cadences, and the way the guitar solo grasps for more and more sky as the voices patter back in, that seems to be informed by dire circumstances — Peru was under military rule at that time — while transcending and undercutting said circumstances in the most empathetic and relaxing of ways. Mind-expanding? In a subtle way, yeah. Entertaining? Certainly. Wistful and summery? Oh, you’d better believe it.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/171345-various-artists-the-rough-guide-to-latin-psychedelia/