From Punk Fury to Mariachi Cries, the Bronx Make Mexican Style Their Own
Los Angeles punk rockers the Bronx morph into Mariachi El Bronx for Musica Muerta, which is a whole world of fun and well made too.
Musica Muerta Vol. 1
Mariachi El Bronx
5 May 2020
Musica Muerta Vol. 2
Mariachi El Bronx
5 May 2020
You would be hard-pressed to find a band that has as unlikely a double-life as Mariachi El Bronx. The musicians – from LA, not the Bronx – are a group of hardcore punk rockers called the Bronx who also reconvene as Mariachi El Bronx, complete with traditional bolo ties and bejeweled charro suits.
The unlikely origin story is that they were asked to do an acoustic version of one of their punk songs and, in a what-the-fuck moment, decided to try it as mariachis. While they were familiar with the music as Angelenos, they were not aficionados. They were so taken with the experiment that it became their second career, starting with a debut album in 2009. One could argue it is now their first career since their mariachi doppelgangers have led them to larger audiences than their original incarnation.
While some might think punk rockers would take on the mariachi sound with some snarky humor or irony, the Bronx took it seriously. While not strict traditionalists, they have proven over the past ten years that they are reverent devotees to the music that they discovered rather late in their musical lives. Lead singer Matthew Caughthran, like the band itself, is surprisingly deft with the dual role. In a testament to his punk vocal style, Caughthran once outscreamed a chain saw as part of a TV stunt, yet he is a romantic, earnest crooner with El Bronx.
While it might seem impossible to hold the two concepts together in your head, one can occasionally see how the strong emotions of El Bronx's songs of love and life are cousins to the Bronx's without the aggression and anger. For the latest set of two albums, the band spins out a spate of new tunes while adding in collector's items, such as remakes, demos, covers, and theme songs they did for even more unlikely collaborations such as one for "Yo Gabba Gabba". The first of the two albums is the stronger, with some powerfully swinging tunes behind Caughthran's soulful vocals.
Mariachi El Bronx's songs feature mariachi instrumentation, but the lyrics are in English and have varying degrees of mariachi-ness. Lyrically the songs are mostly about romantic relationships and, of course, wrecked romantic relationships, but also delve into some wider observations about tackling life. The lyrics themselves bring to mind a kind of Elvis Costello-like expressionism in they less often tell a straight narrative, but rather establish an overall theme brought to the fore by memorable one-liners. One narrative exception is the sad story of "Lady Rosales", where the narrator's girlfriend walks out on Christmas Eve and each subsequent holiday he laments that "My wish list has remained the same / If I can't have her back / Please allow me to forget her name."
Occasionally punctuated by a slow tune, the albums are generally high energy and aimed to make listeners into movers and shakers. The band also takes some liberties within the mariachi sound. On "Loteria", Mariachi El Bronx does a mid-tempo swing to a salsa clave beat as Caughthran sings of changing times. "They don't really make them like me anymore / I'm practically one of a kind / My generation is almost extinct / Every one losing their mind." The propulsive "Wild and Free" hurries forward on nothing but two powerfully strummed acoustic guitars and Caughthran's plaintive vocal. "So here we are / Wild and free / Blazing past unknown / In quiet towns / Too dark to see."
The short interstitial TV theme songs included are amusing, but stick out among their earnest neighboring tracks. "Friends can make you smile," from Nick Jr.'s Yo Gabba Gabba, "Little Boxes" from Showtime's Weeds, and a tune from Adult Swim's Aqua Teen Hunger Force are at least short, if at times a bit frustrating. El Bronx does a few somewhat unlikely covers with satisfying results, sending Prince's "I Would Die For You" south of the border for a thorough remake, and doing justice to Roy Orbison with his heart-burstingly sad ballad "Only the Lonely".
The collection ends with another surprise twist in the band's unlikely persona – two songs espousing religious faith. "Saint Christopher" asks for help from the patron saint of travelers ("My legs are tired and all I see are monuments made of stone"). Meanwhile, the album ends with a slow waltz version of the Byrds' "I Like the Christian Life," which goes in part: "My buddies shunned me since I turned to Jesus / They say I'm missing a whole world of fun."
The 24-cut Musica Muerta is a whole world of fun and well made too. It's a fine, accessible introduction to an unusual band that would seem like they might have a tough time finding an audience, but have carved out their own unlikely niche.