Like happy families and episodes of The Waltons, all Banda el Recodo albums are alike. When you play one, you’re assured 40 minutes or so of ace arrangements and pleasant tunes in a variety of styles. You can’t really go wrong, but you can go righter than their new one, Haciendo Historia. Their 2009 album Me Gusta Todo de Ti is a nonstop barrage of rancheras, cumbias, pop songs and even instrumental swing. Its deluxe edition is the most entertaining 19-song album I’ve ever heard. (Sorry, London Calling!) Me Gusta celebrates Recodo’s exalted place in norteño music, a position they maintain through hard work and commercial cunning. For instance: One of its hits, “Dime Que Me Quieres”, started life as a ballad by prolific songwriters Miguel Ángel Romero and Luciano Luna. Since Me Gusta already had enough ballads, Recodo bandleader Alfonso Lizárraga decided to play it as a cumbia. He told Billboard, “There are a lot of rhythmic songs on [regional Mexican] radio, but they’re kind of novelty, funny songs. We wanted to do a romantic cumbia — something that wasn’t on the air — so we could offer something different.” “Dime” filled the gap, and the rest is history. Latin radio will play this song for as long as we live.
“Making history,” crows the title of Haciendo Historia, and if anyone’s entitled to crow, it’s Recodo. The 17-man juggernaut looms over Mexico’s norteño scene like the ghostly visage of Don Cruz Lizárraga looms over the group’s album covers. Since the late Cruz Lizárraga (Alfonso’s dad) founded the group in 1938, Recodo has been the first banda to record, and, depending on who’s making the history, possibly the first to feature singers as integrated band members. Over the years these guys have applied their brass attack to genres from corrido to pop, quebradita to cumbia to Selena’s “Techno Cumbia”. They’ve ridden every surge in banda’s popularity for the past two decades, and they’ve shaped the genre along the way, like when they gave Luciano Luna his big break in 2007. Their name alone is a status symbol. In Gerardo Ortiz’s recent narcocorrido “Archivaldo”, when the Sinaloa cartel throws a party at Archivaldo’s family ranch, guess which band they hire first.
The thing about juggernauts is, they sometimes coast. Haciendo Historia starts off loaded with would-be hits, but after a while you might get brassed out. And clarinetted out. Or, more to the point, you might feel exhausted hearing this expert band play the heck out of mediocre songs. True, the arrangements can get samey — there’s only so many different ways trumpets, trombones, and clarinets can trade off antiphonal licks. But usually every chart has something going for it, whether the wild clarinet shrieks of “Regresame” or the swanky vibrato in skippety-skip polka “Llegaste”. If Historia ultimately feels empty, blame it on the songs qua songs, second-rate melodies plus rote harmonies, the empty rot inside the horns’ bejeweled façade.
OK, maybe that’s a little harsh, especially since Historia opens with five tunes befitting legends. Luna’s hit “Vas a Llorar Por Mi” (“You’ll Mourn for Me”) sounds maudlin in isolation but really good on the radio, where its tempo-stopping flourishes of high seriousness set it apart. The drums are strictly coloristic, allowing the horns to settle into a deep and flexible pocket of groove. With this song and “Mi Último Deseo”, last year’s hit for spinoff group Banda los Recoditos, could we be witnessing a new era in regional Mexican funeral planning songs? Discuss.
The spritely frolic “Ni Caso Tiene” represents one of the miracles of recent banda: lush polkas. The band takes polka’s loping oompahs and makes them flourish with richer chord changes and a virtuosity that’s almost gimmicky. I mean, the sheer amount of stuff bouncing across the horn lines is hard to believe. Kudos to whichever trombonist landed those little 16th note triplets after the chorus. This is how the band “makes history” two ways: they inhabit the sound of 75 years ago while making it immediate, urgent, and likely to stick around. Their take on traditional music sounds like today.
The next two ballads, “Consequencia de Mis Actos” and “Creí”, have huge choruses and sound like future singles. My money’s on “Creí” and its magic chord changes because I already walk around singing it, even though the only word I reliably get right is “besos”. Ending this auspicious bunch is “El Rosario de Oro”, whose gorgeous melody bridges a rapid-fire stream of waltzing horns, a nice contrast. After that the album starts going downhill, almost imperceptibly until you notice you’re planning dinner and you can’t remember the song you just heard. By the time closing cumbia “El Nini” rolls around, its “ooo-ee! ooo-ee!” hiccups feel like desperate pleas for attention. Of course, Banda el Recodo doesn’t need to sound desperate, but they also don’t need to get an A+ on every album. You probably don’t make it to 75 years old without some calculated slacking off.