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The resounding rebirth of Latin pop

Ed Morales
Newsday (MCT)

Maybe you were one of those who thought that Latin pop explosion was a big dud, and that music never truly represented our "real" culture. Maybe you were hoping Marc Anthony would never do one of those ballad albums again, and just keep starring in movies about legendary salsa singers. Or that urban music such as reggaeton, bachata, alternative rock and Latin R&B would rule the youth, while traditional tropical and Mexican regional kept the over-40 crowd dancing.

Well, think again - this week, Latin pop is back. Luis Fonsi is holding down the No. 1 position on the Billboard Latin singles chart with his yearning ballad "No Me Doy Por Vencido (I'm Not Defeated)" while Ricardo Arjona takes the top spot on the albums chart with his latest, "5to Piso (5th Floor)." While both vocalists demonstrate an increasing sophistication in their approach - they're not your parents' Julio Iglesias - don't be fooled: this is as pop as it gets.

Now 30 years old, Fonsi has been laboring for several years to transcend his boy-band origins. Having moved to Orlando, Fla., at age 10 from his native Puerto Rico, Fonsi dreamed of being in Menudo and briefly performed alongside future 'N Sync member Joey Fatone. Fonsi's current album, "Palabras del Silencio" (Universal), is largely the brainchild of producer Sebastian Krys, who's worked with such mega-pop stars as Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony and rock acts Volumen Cero and Kinky.

The result is an album that fluctuates between "rocking out" and quiet moments with pianos and strings, as well as duets with Italian pop queen Laura Pausini and Mexican pop-rocker Aleks Syntek. "No Me Doy Por Vencido's" massive success probably has to do with its ranchera-style intro and mariachi horns cum Beatles rock riff chorus. But overall, Fonsi's attempt at Juanes-lite is convincing and pulls off several catchy hooks without sounding formulaic.

Guatemalan-born, Mexico City-based singer-songwriter Arjona is a different story. Since his early attempts to fashion himself as a '70s style "protest" singer, Arjona has become increasingly drawn to the persona of the moody, introspective artist. On "5to Piso," he fancies himself as a reclusive writer of "cronicas," carrying on a Latin American tradition.

A Latin American chronicler is a fusion of poet and journalist, writing a blend of essay and short fiction. Arjona's last album features the breakthrough "Mojado," about the travails of a border-crossing immigrant; this one has "Que Nadie Vea (Let Nobody See)," about a tortured gay man.

At times Arjona succeeds, almost brilliantly, as on the tango-inflected title track. But much of "5to Piso" is overblown and uninvolving, and the listener is expected to mistake Arjona's archly staged melancholy for art. "La Bailarina Vecina," about a shy young Arjona's failure to seduce a dancer who lives upstairs, is so plagued with pretentious chamber music that you feel relief for the dancer that the two never connect.

To be fair, this album is beautifully produced, and Arjona deserves credit for trying to make Latin pop that aspires to be something grander than we thought it could be.

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