Top marks have to go to the rhythm section, because it comprises half the damn band.
This is the seventh record by the San Diego-based octet, B-Side Players; it's the first on the Concord Picante label, so hopefully it will bring their politically-charged Latin ska music to a larger audience. It's nowhere near as hard-edged as the giants in the reggae en español field -- Argentina's Bersuit Vergabarat and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, Mexico's El Gran Silencio, etc. -- but for an American band, it's a noble effort, and will light up a lot of college dorm rooms this fall.
The jams here are mostly uptempo bilingual hybrids: opener "Alegria" weds Jamaican horns to a reggaetón beat; "El Comal" has its heart (and its ass) firmly in New York salsa; "Mascara" uses the slow slinky beat of Mexican and Central American cumbia. The more straightforward reggae-esque tracks are solid enough, although there is too much Bob Marley smoothness here and not enough Lee Perry brain-twistery.
Some other songs are fascinating experiments -- "Warrior Culture," which sounds like it should be a Peter Tosh barnburner, actually resembles 1970s fusion jazz with vocals on top. And the title track manages to withstand its children's chorus (always a bad idea) by bringing in a haunting cello line and some stomping Brazilian percussion.
As for the band itself, top marks have to go to the rhythm section, because it comprises half the damn band. Despite the occasional nasality of his voice, Karlos Paez is a pretty good reggae vocalist, all urgency and fire, although his lyrics in Spanish sound a lot less trite and self-satisfied than the ones in English. Sadly, Paez (or "Solrak," as he is known on the website) seems to have learned lyricism from the Sergent Garcia vagueness-is-all school, except Solrak doesn't have the excuse of being a Spanish dude from Paris.
The group's lyrical problems are most evident on "Nuestras Demandas," where they just end up yelling that they want, "independencia" and "democracia." These are hardly bad things to want, but these nebulous concepts make for a pretty nebulous chorus, although the verses are a bit more explicit with references to Zapatistas and other actual freedom fighters. Similarly, in "Unplug This Armageddon", it really sounds like they are blaming telephones and the Internet for our modern troubles -- any committed revolutionary should know that technology can be used to smash the Man just as easily as, y'know, smoke signals or whatever. But the song is so damn funky it is hard to quibble.
Minor nerdish complaints like this aside, this is one tight album, and deserves to be heard. I bet they throw one hell of a live party and I'm hoping to catch it when they storm my little college town in a couple of weeks. ¡Viva la indepencia y la democracia!