Regulo Caro tries to look so hard. Inside the booklet for his third album Especialista, he’s smoking a cigarette and holding a big machine gun. The gun’s instrument panel looks more complicated than my car’s. Roses rest in a pool of blood while the gun fires lipstick kisses. Encased in four of the kisses are the words “Mi venganza se llama karma” — “My vengeance is called karma.” The message conveyed by Caro’s unyielding gaze isn’t so much, “Thanks for buying my CD,” as it is, “If you even think about burning this CD for somebody else — even if it’s your boyfriend or girlfriend — I will hunt and shoot you both in a startling variety of ways, because my gun is awesome.”
Caro’s norteño music is also awesome, sometimes — but not because it’s so violent. (As narcocorridos go, Caro’s are pretty tame.) Take that line about vengeance and karma. When it reappears as song number ten, it’s not some sordid tale of the Sinaloa cartel wreaking vengeance with their big guns. Rather, it’s a searing diatribe from a mother warning her daughter — in the most profane terms possible — that she’ll suffer for her cola caliente just like Mom has. “Mi Venganza Se Llama Karma” is excellent for brushing up your Spanish cusswords, but more than that, it’s a completely left-field character study, hilarious because it’s so unexpected. The galloping music is also hilarious, thanks to the badass playing of acordeonista Marito Aguilar and drummer Jesse “El Pulpo” Esquivel, presumably nicknamed because his eight arms batter his bateria to a pulp.
When Especialista works, it’s because Caro’s band takes his solid tunes and fires lipstick kisses at them. The opening corrido “Empujando la Linea” is a loping waltz — most of these songs are waltzes — set in the world of the Sinaloa cartel. Lyrically it follows in the footsteps of “Dámaso,” a 2013 hit for Caro’s cousin Gerardo Ortiz. Both are “mini lic” songs that detail the high life of a son of the cartel. Unlike seamier corridos, these songs don’t offer details of massacres or handy tips on how to structure your drug trade. Instead, they use the cartel as a metaphor for living large — Caro’s mini lic enjoys private concerts from Jesús Ojeda, Los Tucanes de Tijuana, and Regulo Caro himself, who we’ll assume also lives large. The band, here anchored by tuba, gets a chewy satisfaction out of playing Caro’s simple refrain-free tune. Each player spontaneously twists his accompaniment from verse to verse, sometimes from bar to bar, all while keeping that loping waltz feel.
A born romantic, Caro also uses cartel language to describe love. You see an album called Especialista, its cover festooned with bullet holes and bloodstained roses, and you figure “Especialista” must be the mafia handle of some illicit fixer, right? A real Kerry Washington meets Harvey Keitel type? But no; Luciano Luna’s title song, one of the few Caro didn’t write, is all about a specialist in amor. It’s smarmy but fits with Caro’s carefully cultivated persona as a bad boy who sings to the ladies. (His last album was called Amor en Tiempos de Guerra, love in times of war.)
Indeed, roughly half these 13 songs concern romance. Sometimes they’re about devoted romance, like “Y Si Es Por Amor”, which conjures images of Guadalajaran pop-rockers Maná playing a French café. Sometimes the romance is long gone. The big banda tune “Voy a Pistearme el Dolor” is nearly country in its cheerful appraisal of why love sucks. “The first year was love, the second disaster,” sings Caro, who skips off to drink with his pain.
If you don’t speak Spanish, some of Especialista’s virtues might stay hidden until you look up the lyrics. For one thing, the songwriter Caro inhabits a stunning array of characters. When he uses his corridos to give voice to poor Mexican businessmen (“La Tiendita”) or to get inside the terrorist mind (!) (“Los Pasajes del Terrorista”), you might at first hear just another pleasant three-chord waltz; I know I did. But listen again, because the music is worth it. Caro alters and adds to those chords in interesting ways, and his small norteño band can enliven any song. Though his larger brass band charts are generic, they’re strategically placed to brighten up the album. Especialista closes with a cover of La Unión’s 1984 hit “Lobo Hombre en París”. It’s a straight up new wave song with backbeat and electric guitar solo, smoother and duller than most of what’s come before, but it proves this norteño singer has his sights set beyond norteño music. Which should come as no surprise, given the awesomeness of his gun.