Various Artists: Mexico

Various Artists

With Mexico, the folks over at Putumayo are banking on the fact its listeners have never visited the dirty hole of a tourist trap that Tijuana is. With that in mind, it seems, the label has proceeded to paint one of the most gorgeous paintings of the south-of-the-border country ever with the 13-song compilation, rich in vocal harmonies and lush Latin guitars. Gone are the cheap tequila shots and welcomed are the uncluttered beaches and clear, blue oceans.

And, as is the case with most of their collections, it doesn’t matter that you don’t know any of the artists they’ve rounded up, either. (The closest they come to familiarity is including the first song Los Lobos ever wrote, an instrumental gem hailing from 1977, the group laughing and carrying on some kind of conversation the whole while. And, for those who’ve followed that talented group to the present day, anything remotely Mexican seems a far cry from the rock status the band has honed in its time together.) There are no Shakira or Elvis Crespo tracks among the lot. The groups included here are talented and mostly famous only in their homeland, bringing to the forefront songs of heartbreak and a sound that is at once as alluring as it is attention catching; more than that, it’s better than what you’re used to hearing in your favorite Mexican restaurant, even if it’s only by a notch on some of the selections.

Another thing of little importance is that you’re very familiar with the Spanish language, which all tracks have been recorded in (with the exception of the two instrumentals). This is likely something Putumayo thinks little of anymore, having already released several Latin-based albums, Latino! Latino!, Afro-Latino, and Puerto Rico among them. They’re instead of the mindset that, if you’re buying their albums, you like the packaging and the content, language barriers notwithstanding. Based on how well they do on presentation alone — consistently offering a better-packaged package, with sound to top most poorly produced international recordings — and, considering the relatively few number of songs accompanying each CD, it looks as if the world is theirs for the undertaking. And, taking a peek at what they’ve covered so far, the label’s well on their way to being the definitive, well, everything in world music.

But, getting back to the album at hand, there are some classics here that resound in your mind and tapping feet long after hearing them. “Rogaciano”, which actually is a “classic” in its own right considering it was composed in the 1950s, is a beautiful number about the death of a singer and all his lovers crying at his demise. Linda Ronstadt tackled this one on her Las Canciones de Mi Padre LP, but, with the falsettos coming from male voices as opposed to hers, this is definitely the one to listen to (this nevertheless coming from an unabashed Ronstadt fan, given the fact she could sing in any style she damn pleased). The sad, aged vocals reflect the tale the singer shares, partially translated in English for less able music-loving gringos:

The woman from Huasteca is in mourning
Her huapanguero has died
One can no longer hear the falsetto
That is the soul of the singer
His name was Rogaciano
Rogaciano the huapanguero
By the green coffee plantations
Beyond the field where the cattle graze
There are those who say at night
The ghost of the huapanguero appears

It’s not the only song that reads as an over-dramatic Spanish soap opera but, given the lack of bad acting and hysterics, they’re nevertheless quite lovely to listen to. You don’t know Lila Downs’ “Naila” is about a woman torn between the man she cries to and the one she has nevertheless starting up another romance with, for example, until you read the translation (also offered in Spanish), but it adds another layer to the heartache you can already hear in her voice.

Not all is sad love songs here. Admittedly, the guitar-plucked instrumentals are as happy as they can get — one can almost see the dancing taking place while they’re being played if he or she looks hard and long enough inside his/her mind. And, finally, this is an album that goes beyond just tantalizing the listener’s ears (which it does quite well, more so upon each listen) — for tucked inside the liner notes is a recipe for “Guacamole Putumayo”.

Which, if nothing else, you can dip your Taco Bell Double Decker tacos into if you’re that ambitious.