Julieta Venegas, what's it going take to break you in the States? Your last two records, 1998's Aqui and 2000's Bueninvento were critic favorites. It was a personal favorite for KCRW's Nic Harcourt (you've been on his show three times!) and Bueninvento was a semi-finalist for the 2001 Short List Prize. And all with good reason -- you're a tiny lady with such a commanding voice and you can wield the accordion with the confidence of such masters as Ramon Ayala and Flaco Jimenez. You pen songs with such immediacy, with such dauntless effort. There aren't any female rockerás who are trained accordionists. And there certainly aren't very many trained accordionists who have led a Southern California punk band (Tijuana No!) to cult/legend musical status.
That's why your last record, Bueninvento, was a radical step forward for female musicians in Latin alternative music. You have the cojones to synthesize accordions to a pulsating drum machine (thanks be to your amigo Joey Waronker) or seamlessly incorporate them onto thriving hip hop beats. I know you do so because you're down with the Tijuana Nortec movement -- those electronic DJs redefining traditional Mexican music by combining it with European electronica. You so understand the storytelling power found in norteno and conjunto music that during your concerts you perform a rousing cover of norteno legends Los Tigeres Del Norte's "Jaula de Oro" ("The Golden Cage"), a story of a Mexican immigrant who feels trapped between his financial success in the US and his struggle to preserve his culture. Ms. Venegas, on "Jaula de Oro", you have the unique ability to capture the struggle all minorities face in our country -- that sadness within the song, you pull it off with such ease.
Now on your new record, Sí, you ask, "si quesiera andar contigo"?
Loosely translated, you ask: Do I want to be with you? And quite frankly -- la neta -- Ms. Venegas, I was quite hesitant when I discovered that producers Gustavo Santaolalla (Amores Perros, 21 Grams) and Toy Hernandez (Control Machete) were sitting this one out. Imagine how I felt when I heard your new album was más pop? No, Ms. Venegas, please don't go the disenchanting way of Shakira or even Jewel. You're much more talented. Your music has the ability to transcend beyond the aesthetic. You don't have to parade around in campy outfits in order to show us that passion in your songs. You let that emotion unfurl in your voice -- take "Me Van A Matar" ("I'm Going to Die"), the song you wrote after your marriage faltered. When you sing this song (now a classic) we feel we're going to die with you. It's that stark appeal that only you and your comadre en rock, Ely Guerra, posses. You may not know this but you're paving the way for a new generation of avant-garde female musicians.
So you think with these new producers, the Argentinean pop savants Coti Sorokin (Diego Torres, Alejandro Lerner) and Cachorro Lopez (Los Aterciopelados), you are going to reach a broader audience?
Ay, somehow the answer is Sí. Your new album has lured me in with its effervescent pop sheen. It's playful and each song brims with that elation one gets when one first falls in love. I look at the CD cover, where you're dressed in a wedding gown and see you coyly grin back at me, nipping at your white gloves. And I can tell you're obviously having fun, not Madonna-like-a-virgin-wearing-a-wedding-gown fun, but instead PJ Harvey Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea fun. And you're often compared to this fine British rocker. It's a good comparison. because like Ms. Harvey, you've found love, you're writing about it, and it resonates in your album. However, unlike PJ Harvey's Stories, where she retreads back to her edgier rock roots, you take a giant leap forwards away from your edgier Latin rock and onto more spirited pop.
And it works! You may not have broken that difficult Anglo market, but you've definitely found success in your Mexico, where your brilliant first single, "Andar Conmigo" ("To Be with Me"), has become a staple, played at weddings, quinceaneras, and family get-togethers. The song, a corrido, is a love-anthem, a beacon of hope for the lovelorn. It's an excellent introduction to Sí. On "Lento" ("Slow"), Ms.Venegas, you ask your lover for more time so you can give yourself to the relationship. The song, a sweet sing-a-long with a delicate accordion touch, sounds reminiscent of Janet Jackson, when she was asking her lovers to wait a while. But you, Ms. Venegas, you sound so sincere.
Your songs gleam with such joy on "Algo Esta Cambiando" ("Something Changes"), you contemplate how love changes people -- you sing in Spanish, "it can't be seen / But I feel there are things within me that are changing / Could it be love?" And I can almost hear PJ Harvey answer your question, "Yes, this is love / This is love / That you're feeling."
Coti Sorokin and Cachorro Lopez, your newfound friends, have discovered a formula that works for you. On Sí, Sorokin and Lopez do an outstanding job of balancing the synth-pop with your melodic lyrics. On "A Tu Lado" ("By Your Side"), you drop the accordion for the dance floor, but I'm glad to hear the accordion return with electronic break beats on "Lo Que Pidas" ("What You Wish") and "Mala Memoria" ("Bad Memory").
On "Mala Memoria" and "Nada Serio" ("Nothing Serious"), I can hear the old Venegas gleaming through.. The one that has been scarred and burned by love yet resurfaced with such defiance. It's the old Venegas that ponders about the darker side of love. In fact, I love the way your songs on Sícan easily stand out as alterna-pop, but can be stripped to back to your haunting acoustic-accordion sets.
Ms. Venegas, I seriously doubt that you'll lose your core fans. Not with a solid pop record like this. They'll just have to understand that this is a serious progression for you as an artist that in fact will garner new fans. Let's hope these new pop fans believe in your music the way I do.
Hey, Latin bubble gum popsters take note: This is the work of a veteran Latin rock artist proving that she can evolve onto your pop world with her accordion strapped tight. She brings elements of traditional Mexican music and combines it with synth-pop and electronic-dance. Shakira and, more importantly, Jewel, please take note: you can evolve without having to sacrifice your integrity. And if you're going to use an accordion on your albums, please know how to use it. I think Ms. Venegas would thank you.