[8 January 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Over the course of the last decade, the woefully underrated Bay Area-based trio Totimoshi has been steadily evolving, taking the sludgy stoner sounds of the Melvins and adding their own identity, drawing primarily from the Latino and Cuban roots of guitarist Antonio Aguilar and bassist Meg Castellanos respectively. It’s been an interesting metamorphosis to witness on record, as 2006’s remarkable Ladrón had the band on the cusp of carving out an honest-to-goodness identity of their own, with the husband and wife duo making significant strides in the songwriting department, beginning to move beyond that ever-present Melvins influence, and the new direction enhanced further by the warm production of Helmet guitarist Page Hamilton.
At the rate they were going, it was only a matter of time before Totimoshi made the breakthrough many knew was in them, and not surprisingly, it’s finally happened on album number five. Spanish for the phrase “miracle worker”, Milagrosa distances itself so much from the band’s stoner origins that many will be quick to compare its sound to the hybrid of Latin themes and electric blues of the White Stripes’ recent work. However, instead of sounding like a near-campy curiosity, Aguilar brings a strong sense of authenticity to the proceedings. His songs, often inspired by the lives of his migrant farm worker parents, brim with enigmatic yet florid tales, both the lyrics and the mournful melodies often resembling traditional folk music, only delivered by a powerhouse rock ‘n’ roll band.
As is always the case when it comes to Totimoshi, it’s all about the guitars, but Aguilar dominates this album more than any other in the past. Again, Hamilton, with the assistance of mixer Toshi Kasai (who previously worked on the Melvins’ outstanding (A) Senile Animal), plays a significant role in pulling Totimoshi’s sound out of the mire. Aguilar’s guitar tone is cleaner and crisper than ever before, more preoccupied with texture as opposed to sheer physicality. Consequently, the mix gives the guitarist the freedom to let loose, which he does, unleashing solos and jagged riffs at an unrelenting rate.
As for the songs themselves, many on Milagrosa rank among the best the band has ever written. The five and a half minute “Sound the Horn” kicks the album off with a ferocious, funk-fueled march, the stops and starts by Aguilar, Castellano, and drummer Chris Fugitt adding a lurching quality. “El Emplazado” twitches with nervous energy, led by the stuttering drum fills of Fugitt, before settling into a vicious groove that conjures thoughts of the Jesus Lizard trying out Spanish rhythms. The funereal yet enthralling “Last Refrain” builds up to a surprisingly pretty chorus as Aguilar launches into a torrid solo, while the almost whimsical riffery in the title track are offset by a rather ominous sounding Jew’s harp. Despite being just over three minutes long, “The Whisper” exudes an epic quality, the threesome channeling Crazy Horse’s “Cortez the Killer” and crafting a monolithic jam that we don’t ever want to end.
It’s not that the more aggressive side of Totimoshi is gone permanently, though. “Seeing Eye” is the album’s most Melvins-esque tune, and “Fall and Bound” executes the quiet-loud formula well, Aguilar’s distorted riffs exploding during the grunge-like chorus, while “Gnat” is aptly titled, the song skittering along, dominated by Castellano’s jagged, Big Black-style bassline. That said, Hamilton’s and Kasai’s emphasis on cleaner tones lessens the impact of those songs, which benefit greatly from not exploding into dense walls of doomy heaviness. It’s that push and pull between heavy and introspective that makes Milagrosa so inviting, and like the cover, which depicts a dead mother and baby in an embrace, the album achieves a kind of beautiful contrast between tenderness and despair, a theme depicted beautifully on the understated tracks “Forever in Bone (Los Dos)” and “Dear”.