Nena Guzman: La Iniciativa

Norteño pop singer restrains fiery band from crashing through studio walls.

Nena Guzman

La Iniciativa

Label: Del / Sony Latin
US Release Date: 2014-03-25
UK Release Date: Import
Label website

Nena Guzman can command a band with her voice, but hers probably isn't the voice that pops to mind when you think of "commanding voices." Her voice doesn't have the bright edge of a trumpet or the dry husk of a drill sergeant. In fact, her timbre barely lends itself to descriptors, so thoroughly does it disappear into its work of song-leading. Down low she's declamatory, murmuring just to you and/or some dude; up high she's sweet and clear, a little like Debbie Gibson. Even her long notes, a singer's usual vehicles for savoring her voice, appear for their musical utility. In the banda ballad "60 Segundos", the lead single from Guzman's third and best album La Iniciativa, Guzman deploys the odd long note only to complete the song's title or give emphasis to certain phrases. What she really loves to sing are words. Words contain syllables, you see, and syllables are the building blocks of rhythm, and by manipulating her rhythm Guzman telegraphs her intentions to the band.

This is especially true on the songs she sings with a smaller norteño quartet; apart from "60 Segundos", her big band songs are wind-up toys that would keep going with or without Guzman. On the smaller songs, though, she handles the formidable task of holding the band together so they don't go reeling through the studio walls. Each of the four instrumentalists -- an anonymous Del Records house band -- plays his or her own line with the maximum amount of improvisation allowed by musical law, and it's Guzman's job to make sure they get a song out of the mess.

"La Ruleta", a whirligig of a waltz, is actually two waltzes in one. During the bedlam of the verses, Guzman's voice is the mortar smoothing over the accordion's flights of fancy and the tuba's stinging hemiolas. Throughout La Iniciativa, accordion and tuba are mixed louder than drums and bajo sexto; they play in counterpoint to Guzman. Then everything stops -- breath -- and Guzman introduces the new chorus tempo, pounding out the phrase "So-lo una co-sa te digo" -- "One thing I say". From there the music slows down, grows more stable. Guzman depicts the vagaries of fate and love as a spinning roulette wheel, demonstrating her point with the long word "vueltas" turning gorgeously across two full measures, sweet and clear and devoid of vibrato. Before long, she sings the band into their next verse, and we're off and running again.

Like most of these tunes, "La Ruleta" is a love song. In the past Guzman has focused on corridos, but La Iniciativa contains only a couple of those. ("Las Plebes Mandan Ahora" and "Guzman" race past in the same key, guns blazing.) Guzman is unusual, though hardly unprecedented, because she's a woman who sings norteño. Just watch her on the variety show Estudio 2, leading her all-male band through "La Intrusa" while bikini-clad women dance in the background, to see how her genre's default setting is "male gaze." Yet the Estudio 2 audience is full of female fans, and Guzman sees La Iniciativa as an album "totalmente para la mujer." "At the end of the day I'm a woman, I like everything that has to be sensitive, romantic, and I think that's part of being a woman," she told the paper La Opinión.

Guzman wrote three of these love songs, and her music's better than her words -- aside from the one where she plays the Other Woman and winks to her cuckqueaned rival, "I'm your assistant." (Ouch.) Musically she's in pop territory, throwing flatted chords and blue notes into melodies that showcase her two distinct vocal registers. Her lyrics aren't all that interesting -- but hey, neither are Luciano Luna's, the omnipresent hit songwriter who contributed Guzman's title song. (His tune's not much, either.) Whether she's singing someone else's song or one of her own, like the list song "Olvidaste", Guzman treats words like musical possibilities. They're devices that let her push ahead of the beat or drag behind it. In her appealing voice, with this amazing band, the songs yield to her wishes.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller

18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr

17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr

16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.