Music

Gerardo Ortiz: Archivos de Mi Vida

If you wanna know American pop music in all its multifaceted glory, you need to know Gerardo Ortiz.


Gerardo Ortiz

Archivos de Mi Vida

Label: Del / Sony Latin
US Release Date: 2013-11-25
UK Release Date: 2013-11-25
Label website
Artist website
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Yes yes, Beyoncé is a marvel and we are fortunate to breathe her air. But in the not-so-distant future -- when everyone’s running around in a Cloud Atlas dystopia, spotifying on their sonys while fomenting the clone revolution -- tastemakers will review their 2013 best-of lists with chagrin, realizing they omitted not one but two deserving 14-song sony products that broke late in the year. The truth will dawn that Gerardo Ortiz was every inch the corporate musical deity, just like Peerless Leader Bey. (OK, he may be like an inch shorter.) Archivos de Mi Vida is the 24-year-old’s fourth hit album in four years, his third #1 on Billboard’s Top Latin chart, and that’s not even counting his three live albums. Three! Who else releases three live albums by age 24? Johnny Rivers, maybe. Jazz doesn’t count. Point is, Ortiz is huge -- scoring Hot Latin hits of his own, writing hits for other people, racking up 31 million-and-counting views for his big brassy “Dámaso” video on YouTube. If you wanna know American pop music in all its multifaceted glory, you need to know Gerardo Ortiz.

He’s a hustler, baby, he just wants you to know. Ortiz’s previous albums have been onslaughts of acordeón and banda-led narcocorrido, Mexico’s century-old drug-slinging storytelling genre, which currently glorifies the Sinaloa cartel and others. Ni Hoy Ni Mañana, Ortiz’s 2010 debut, thugged out our hero with big old guns and ski masks for the band, the “O” in his surname replaced by a grenade. The bare bones CD booklet provided the phone number of someone named simply “Junior” but no information about who was playing all those hot acordeón licks. I have it on good authority that in concert, Ortiz spends less time playing his axe than he does pouring tequila shots for his band. At the time, Ortiz was loosely affiliated with El Movimiento Alterado, the bloodthirstiest association of corrido bands in the game. He’s lurched toward respectability ever since, thoughtfully giving the world a concept album, a Bob Marley cover, and a tribute to his slain cousin Ramiro Caro. (He’s also started naming musicians in his liner notes.) In classic tough guy fashion, the new Archivos de Mi Vida finds the artist wistful and woman-obsessed, like Sinatra singing “It Was a Very Good Year” while the casino bosses weep.

Despite the title, Archivos is not -- ahem -- a greatest hits album. Allmusic has been confused on this point. That said, this studio album has plenty in common with the previous three: a bunch of songs written by Ortiz, a smattering of tunes by other famous names, character studies about living large in Cartelworld, and many gratuitous shouts of "HAY no más!," a catchphrase with its own Facebook fan page. It's called “Por Los Que Amamos El ¡¡¡¡ Hay No mas !!!! de Gerardo Ortiz” -- I’m so happy this exists. But in reality, hay mucho más. After two fast songs about the throngs who cheer him on in Culiacán -- usually a giveaway that the narrator’s income is tax-free -- Ortiz sings four straight tunes about las mujeres. Bandas románticas are the narco singer’s usual tickets to radio and fame; love songs skirt Mexico’s intermittent bans on narcocorridos, and they attract women to concerts. I know that sounds sexist but it is what it is. And anyway, individual fandom is always more nuanced than sales figures.

Cue “Mujer De Piedra”. A tuba blats fartily. The hit single is a stately song about a stony woman whose empty chest cavity renders her unsusceptible to Ortiz’s affections. My librarian Gloria likes it and so do I. The song’s slow horn counterpoint is rigid and formal, as though Ortiz and his mujer are engaging in some feisty tête-a-tête at the ball, or strolling through an ancient plaza trying not to break anything. Ortiz livens things up by snapping into each rhyme and then holding it out, like he’s displaying precious objects (“zapatoooooooooos”). He seems to find physical pleasure in the act of rhyming. The next song, “Como Hás Cambiado” (“How You’ve Changed”), lopes along on an adventurous electric bass line, drunk-shaming an ex-lover. To atone, Ortiz sings “Perdóname” by noted singer-songwriter América Sierra. It starts off boring but improves when Ortiz begins racing through nonstop triplet syllables, apparently inspired by last year’s smash hit for La Arrolladora, “Cabecita Dura”. Next up, the spritely cumbia “Y Me Besa” finds Ortiz’s girlfriend drunk again. This time it’s OK because she’s dancing and kissing him.

The cumbia aside, that’s three slow ones in a row, threatening to make this the least energetic Gerardo Ortiz album yet. Beware the nostalgia of 24-year-old tough guys. Except Gerardo Ortiz is really good! He’s a heck of a songwriter, for one thing. Archiving his life in the title track, Ortiz writes an exquisite melody of elegiac wistfulness. His lyrics, though, are tricky jumbles of internal rhyme, stringing long, hard-to-scan sentences across the musical phrases. The jubilant norteño quartet jumbles along. It’s the same band that played on Ortiz’s last two albums and on Especialista, by Ortiz’s cousin Regulo Caro. You know what that means -- El Pulpo on batería! The horn arrangements, when there are horn arrangements, drive their songs with contrasting textures and cool crescendo effects. One gorgeous banda ballad, “Eres Una Niña”, features ringing bachata guitar. The two worst songs are really short. And I haven’t even mentioned the bonus mariachi remixes!

At its best, Archivos de Mi Vida provides one novelty after another, but familiar pleasures remain. Though Ortiz has expanded his palette and learned to equate squinting with thoughtfulness, he still plays at getting his hands dirty. In a sort-of sequel to “Dámaso”, the new “Archivaldo” chronicles the high life of Iván Archivaldo “El Chapito” Guzmán Salazar, son of the Sinaloa cartel and one of El Imparcial newspaper’s prestigious “Los Narcojuniors del 2013.” Lots of people sing songs about Archivaldo. “Archivaldo” and “Chapito” are corrido incantations. When you sing an Archivaldo song, you wear his power and largesse like a glammed out bulletproof vest, and Ortiz wears the vest more comfortably than most. Like Yoncé, the Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love, Gerardo Ortiz is staying true to his gente, even as he inhabits a realm most of them will never know.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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