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.