Noel Torres has a heaviness about him. An intense young corridista whose widow’s peak is growing at a dangerous rate, he gazes into cameras with a look that’s not angry, not threatening, just serious. The heaviness is there in his music, too. I’d call him a monster accordion player, but that’d imply some monstrous messiness in his playing, inadvertently stomping on cars or throwing little girls into lakes or whatnot, and Torres never seems to play anything by accident. When playing his own songs, which is usually, he arranges them into short masterpieces of precision and control. He tosses off riff after riff, their notes connected by chromatic flurries, then hits startling passages of kickass mind-meldery with the rest of the band while he’s singing. As if to prove Torres’s bandleading prowess, the band always rocks, despite shifting personnel from album to album. Bands like Los Tucanes de Tijuana insert recordings of machine guns into their songs; Torres’s rhythm sections just play the machine gun fire. The bands’ common denominator is everyone’s favorite drummer, Jesse “El Pulpo” Esquivel, who’s played with Torres on most of his albums. You just know El Pulpo grew up with some Sepultura CDs in his house.
He’s back pounding away for Torres album number five La Balanza, as precise and controlled a title as you’d expect. Last year’s career high La Estructura shaped the elements of Torres’s work — the corridos played like metal songs, the romantic banda ballads aimed at the Latin pop charts — into an unpredictable album structure. (“La Estructura” the song referred to the inner workings of a well-run cartel.) On La Estructura, Torres forgot the typical rules of putting songs in order. In a couple places, corridos in the same meter and key sat comfortably side by side, twin-spin landmarks, adding to their power and to the unique shape of the whole thing. Forgoing such idiosyncrasies, La Balanza is more, you know, balanced. Torres’s small band — Torres, El Pulpo, George Ramos, Jr. on bajo sexto, and somebody on electric bass — trades off with a big brass banda, every other song for 11 songs, after which you get a remixed ballad and three old school banda covers. The norteño band’s still fiery and most of the songs are good, but it’s all a bit predictable.
Torres rarely writes for other singers, but he’s developed an impressive body of work within a narrowly defined genre. Like, he mostly writes fast waltzes. He used to write his own romantic ballads, but on La Estructura he started farming those out to the likes of Luciano Luna, norteño music’s Diane Warren, and the gambit worked: Luna’s provided Torres with all three of his Top-10 hits. But Torres’s waltzing corridos are richer and more interesting than the pretty pills of his song doctors. He structures his melodies more like rock tunes than the traditional corridos he loves. Torres frequently throws in altered and flatted chords, a rarity in this I-V-I world. On the new “Corrido de Jaimon”, six bittersweet verses about a young man saying goodbye to el rancho, Torres’s accordion plays a dissonant riff against the bass, the dissonance doubling down on both the bittersweetness and the farewell — this music belongs to the city, even as it honors its ranchera roots. With the help of his bandmates and recording engineers, Torres has always gotten an absolutely modern corrido sound. “Estilo de Michoacán” sets the album’s tone with a barrage of tom rolls, reverb, and sneakily multi-tracked vocals. When you listen to a sparsely recorded band like Los Tucanes, you hear the sun beating down on the Sierra. Torres’s music sounds full and wet.
Back to those romantic ballads: is it just me, or has Torres’s singing improved? On “Adivina”, his big break hit song last year, he sounded strained, as though he couldn’t wait to get out of the bedroom and hit the shooting range. He sings his new hits, the Luna-penned “Me Interesas” and “Para Qué Tantos Besos”, with clarity and authority. Not with vibrato or a change in timbre, mind you — none of that Arrolladora stuff — but you sense how he feels by the way he holds back certain syllables or rolls his R’s with special gusto. This underselling sells the sappy songs better. He cuts through the threat of sentimentality, like Boulez conducting Bruckner or something.
And those aren’t even the best banda songs! In Luna tune number three, “Estoy Reprobado”, a big soaring trumpet announces a whirlwind of swinging brass and Torres’s claim that he has a diploma in love. And the funny and profane third single “Amanecí Con Ganas” pleads with a spoiled rich girl whose father wants to shoot poor Noel. Lacking the usual romantic platitudes, “Amanecí” is a delightful choice for radio.
Torres’s platitudiest song is also his most startling. “El Cambio” is Torres’s tribute to los comunitarios, the movement of vigilante self-defense groups (“autodefensas”) springing up throughout Mexico. These groups have taken up arms against the drug cartels that often operate unchecked. The Mexican government disapproves of the autodefensas, at one point ordering them to disarm, in theory because they might be co-opted by criminals — meet the new boss same as the old boss. Merely by existing, the autodefensas make the Mexican government look bad.
Thumbnail social studies aside, “El Cambio” has a power that’s new for Torres. He often populates his corridos with smooth operators from the cartels, but here offers a full-blooded “Do You Hear the People Sing” rallying cry for armed revolution against the cartels. (Not revolution against Mexico City, although he does distrust the government and sings, “We will not hand over our weapons.” Sounds like the Texas Militia.) Good as it is, “El Cambio” also hints that Torres might be moving into important song territory, along the lines of John Mellencamp’s 1987 “We Are the People”. (“If you try to divide and conquer, we’ll rise up against you.”) You’ll remember Mellencamp went downhill from there.
Like his labelmate and sometime duet partner Gerardo Ortíz, Torres has mostly detached from El Movimiento Alterado, the ultraviolent corrido genre founded by Twiins Music Group. (Alterado’s biggest name right now is El Komander, whose hit single “Soy De Rancho” is great and not ultraviolent — it’s similar to Torres’s “Corrido de Jaimon”, actually.) Theirs was always a loose affiliation anyway, but as their cartel shoutouts and gun lyrics fade away — not necessarily a bad thing — I hope their music and personas don’t follow suit. The ninth and 10th songs on La Balanza make Torres sound like he’s running out of material. That hasn’t happened in a while. Fortunately song number 11, a duet with the group Voz de Mando about that fickle bastard Karma and his death-dealing mistress La Parca, is full of lowlifes, kidnapping, and murder. It brings out the best in the musicians. At several points they sound like they’re stabbing the song with their instruments. Torres surveys the maelstrom he’s orchestrated and carefully avoids smiling.