Chicano Batman: Freedom Is Free

Photo: Josue Rivas

L.A.'s Chicano Batman combine vintage psychedelic soul with a strong social message. They may just be the perfect band for our times.

Chicano Batman

Freedom Is Free

Label: ATO
US Release Date: 2017-03-03

The immediate impression you get upon hearing Freedom Is Free, the latest album from L.A.’s Chicano Batman, is that of an old, battered, obscure album from 1972 that you found in your cool uncle’s vinyl collection. Or maybe it’s something you discover while aimlessly browsing a flea market. The music has that kind of authenticity. The thing is, it’s brand new music. But it sounds like it wasn’t recorded within 100 miles of a laptop.

Chicano Batman -- a quartet consisting of Bardo Martinez (vocals, guitar, organ), Carlos Arevalo (guitar), Eduardo Arenas (bass, vocals) and Gabriel Villa (drums, percussion) -- make music that seems hermetically sealed from another time, yet their politics and social commentary are as vital as ever in this day and age.

Take the album’s title, for example. It’s a deliberate flip of the “Freedom Isn’t Free” catchphrase that was plastered on the back of countless American pickup trucks after the Iraq War. Martinez argues that “this logic has explicitly justified war and its atrocities in the name of freedom". The title, he adds, “is an antithesis to that ideological fallacy.”

While the lyrics and social conscience of Chicano Batman are a throwback to the revolutionary messages of Gil-Scott Heron and What’s Going On-era Marvin Gaye, the music also adds to the retro-soul atmosphere. Thick slabs of Hammond organ mix with funky guitar riffs, relentless backbeats and a heavy coating of analog grease, combined with a heaping helping of Tropicalia. For producer Leon Michels (who brought the band to Long Island City, New York, to record the album), this is familiar territory, as he’s worked with artists like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and the Black Keys.

The album’s first single, “Friendship (Is a Small Boat in a Storm)", works well as a primer for the band’s hard-hitting yet intoxicating psychedelic soul. Martinez’ aching falsetto is straight out of classic Curtis Mayfield singles and New York-based female vocal group Mariachi Flor de Toloache provide a soulful, sympathetic backing.

The band also infuses their sound with jarring musical shifts that owe more to the jazzier, more complex genres of the bygone era they tend to inhabit. “Angel Child” shifts from soul balladry to heavy funk and then to a spacey, jittery, guitar-heavy psych/prog style that sounds like Sly Stone channeling Frank Zappa.

The aforementioned title track does a fantastic job of marrying a sunny, bouncy groove and positive message with a sharp admonishment to those who claim that the natural state of society is war. “You got your guns up on display / But you can’t control how I feel, no way / ‘Cause freedom is free / And that’s the way it’s always gonna be.” It should be noted that Chicano Batman recently covered Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” for a Johnny Walker commercial (appearing in the ad with their trademark retro tuxes with ruffled feathers, naturally), further sealing their reputation as a band with a strong social conscience.

Elsewhere, Freedom Is Free includes a few direct nods to the band’s Latino heritage as a pair of back-to-back songs (“La Jura” and “Flecha Al Sol”) are sung in Spanish. The former song is a lazy, mid-tempo funk ballad that breaks for tasty guitar and organ soloing at the halfway mark, while the latter is a faster, almost punk-ish earworm that still allows for plenty of easygoing melodicism to live comfortably alongside the frantic pace. As if checking off boxes to ensure an eclectic mix, the album even throws in a brief instrumental, “Right Off the Back,” which employs a tight, funky urgency that gives the impression of a car chase on an old Streets of San Francisco episode.

One of the album’s most impressive tracks is one that enjoyed a relatively long gestation period. Martinez confesses to taking a long time to write “The Taker Story", inspired in large part by Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael. Backed by an almost hypnotic funk groove, Martinez both speaks and sings the lyrics, which focus on the destruction humans foist upon both themselves and the planet, in addition to their assumed superiority over all creatures. “We’ve been enacting the story for twelve thousand years / The one that says man must follow no natural laws / The one that says that man is distinctly set from every living thing / That man is the end result of evolution.” This isn’t just mere protest – it’s putting injustice in the context of the entire history of existence. Heady stuff.

Chicano Batman is a band that makes you dance, makes you long for days gone by, but reminds you that the world can be a dark place and that art can make you think, speak out, and ultimately enact change. They may just be the perfect band for our times.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

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

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