The success of Los Straitjackets is one of the better examples of how fractious the popular music market has truly become, and how that's a good thing. They play nothing but instrumentals (with the exception of 2001's divine Sing Along with Los Straitjackets), all of which are three and a half minutes or less and filled with enough surf guitar twang to please both Dick Dale and Sergio Leone. They wear Mexican wrestling masks onstage and have never been photographed without them. They speak exclusively in Spanish to the audience, only to break into accent-perfect English when they absolutely have to. During their performance at Milwaukee's Summerfest last year, the audience heard "Recepción, señoras y caballeros. Es bueno estar aquí en el ampitheater PIGGLY WIGGLY." The crowd was howling.
It's hard not to admire them. They're doing something so outrageously out of step with the times, yet they do it so well, and with such unwavering conviction, that they win people over by sheer force of will. Or, at least up until now, they've done it so well.
After a seven-year run of excellent offerings, Supersonic Guitars in 3-D, the latest album from Los Straitjackets, is their first real misstep. It's unclear whether the hectic touring and recording schedule is to blame, or if they have simply taken this surf instrumental thing as far as it can go. Either way, the band, for the first time, sounds gassed, and the gimmicky artwork, complete with a pair of 3-D glasses, suggests that the band knows it, too.
3-D is the band's first album since 1996's Viva Los Straitjackets that consists of all original compositions, and while it would be unfair to say that their unique cover versions are propping them up (take "Sing Sing Sing", from 1999's The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets, for example), the absence of cover tunes is notable and, sadly, regrettable. The other notable absence is the lack of anything energetic. There isn't a "Kawanga!" anywhere to be found here, though "Time Bomb" comes close.
That said, even if the band had thrown in a couple tasty covers, it still would have been undermined by 3-D's sound, which is, frankly, awful. The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets positively shimmered, as has everything else in their catalog that Yep Roc has released to date. 3-D, however, sounds like it was recorded in a bog, with muddy drum tracks and virtually no trace whatsoever of what musicologists call "high end". What happened? Even their Christmas album, 2002's 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets, had a little bit of treble.
Supersonic Guitars in 3-D is not a death knell for Los Straitjackets -- it's only one record, after all -- but it may be a wake-up call for the band to beware getting complacent. They have succeeded in the past with styles that were out of their normal sphere of influence (Velvet Touch's straightforward pop closer "All That Glitters" could easily be the new "Rock 'n Roll Part II" in movie trailers), and it would be good to see them do a little more exploring. 3-D isn't bad, but they're clearly capable of doing better.