When you listen to Los Buitres de Culiacan Sinaloa, you’re forced into a kind of reckoning. Specifically, you must decide how much you enjoy smart-ass norteño punks who seem not to believe anything they’re singing. Not that they’d recognize themselves as “punks,” but surely the impulse finds its way into every culture, like the dumpling.
Last year’s Simplemente Buitres album convinced me Los Buitres is one of the most ambitious norteño bands around, and that I don’t like them very much. Sometimes the quartet would switch tempo and meter within songs, or stick a doomy canned string arrangement into an otherwise bouncy corrido, cool ideas that came across as refusals to engage. Skipping from genre to genre, Eduardo Sánchez Reyes sang his love songs with the same lighthearted glint as his narcocorridos and his dance songs. (Usually in this genre, the drug songs are merry and the love songs are overwrought.) Sánchez’s thin voice couldn’t sell his slow ones, and his accordion struggled to fill the sonic space where he heard lush string arrangements. On the other hand, Los Buitres covered some catchy tunes and sounded like nobody else. I mean, the Tubes were ambitious, too! As with the Tubes or the Fiery Furnaces, Los Buitres’ music is exciting for existing at all, but listening to them can grow exhausting.
The new Territorio Buitre gets some things better and others worse. Melding their instrumental shifts onto succinct pop structures, Los Buitres have hired a banda to play along on almost half the tracks. In an exhilarating series of exchanges, the quartet ripples and bounces for a verse or so, only to have the banda come in and stomp all over everything. Possibly inspired by “Gente Batallosa”, Calibre 50’s hit collaboration with Banda Carnaval, Los Buitres tried this antiphonal approach a few times last album, and they should’ve run with it for more of these new songs. Not only does the banda liven up the album’s texture, it energizes the quartet — especially bajo sexto player Eulogio Sosa, determined to inject as much invention as possible before the horns render him inaudible. Los Buitres outsource most of their songwriting, and for whatever reason, they’ve handed most of the best songs to the banda. Lead single “Mejor Soltero” deserves to become an anthem for newly single people everywhere, with details of drunken escapade and a battle cry of “chingar tu madre!” Going to the same well, should-be single “Noche de Lokera” is a thrilling call-and-response between chorus and soloist, like “The Shoop Shoop Song” if Betty Everett were nursing her coke hangover with aguachiles.
Apart from the banda, Los Buitres pick at scraps. The best banda-free song is probably the cheater’s ballad “Tengo Novia”, by the ubiquitous smarm-meister Espinoza Paz; it runs with the clever lyrical conceit, “I have a girlfriend, but…” Paz being a caballero, nothing too outrageous happens, but he does get away with the meta move of inserting his name into the lyrics — Espinoza on the beat, ho! For every decent quartet song, though, there’s one that doesn’t connect. The power ballad “Esa Mujer” once again suffers from Sánchez’s accordion working too hard, wheezing when it should make us swoon; besides that, Sánchez keeps singing about how weird he is in an uncomfortably high register. No one’s winning anyone back with this song. Even the closing speed-cumbia “El Perikito” lacks much luster beyond a couple of cool accordion effects, and I’m usually a sucker for a big dumb cumbia.
As accomplished as their banda features are, Los Buitres frequently show themselves capable of half-assing it, reinforcing the sense that they’re punks who don’t care how you feel. Sometime when you’re too happy, check out last year’s Buitres live album, En Vivo de Culiacan Vol. 2. If Los Buitres could sell that lethargic turd with straight faces, they’re wearing some heavy emotional armor. Sometimes they produce work of unique density and heft, but when they don’t, your attempts to care for them will simply bounce right off.