Mariachi El Bronx

Mariachi El Bronx (II)

Rating: 3.8/5.0

Label: ATO Records

The concept of Mariachi El Bronx is supremely one-of-a-kind, leaving even the most ambitious alter-ego projects – for example, Beirut founder Zach Condon’s electronic personality, Realpeople – in the dust. Mariachi El Bronx (II) marks the second album of the mariachi-style pop band, and the fifth album of Los Angeles hardcore punk band, the Bronx. Say what? Yes, Mariachi El Bronx and the Bronx are indeed one and the same, and like all individuals loyal to a multiple-personality disorder, the two musical counterparts are distinct, split entities that have no relation to each other than the hosts involved – Matt Caughthran, Joby Ford, Brad Magers, Jorma Vik, Ken Horne – and the vitality presiding within both minds. (Rounding out the core troupe, Vincent Hidalgo, Caughthran’s former schoolmate, takes lead guitarrón duties.) Even Caughthran’s voice, here restrained, smooth and pleasant, presents a different life force from its usual grizzly-bear growl on plugged-in Bronx releases. Mariachi El Bronx is essentially band’s answer to the banalities of rock groups performing unplugged sets. These guys take it one warped step further, and given their history in Los Angeles, it’s quite fitting for them to embrace the culture surrounding them so long.

This second album of hummingbird-like fiddles, staccato brass harmonies and shuffling beats echoes all the satiable qualities of its debut. Even with a full-fledged ensemble backing up the band, there’s but the subtlest hint of pop hybridization within which extends its accessibility to other audiences. Melding Americana with south-of-the-border enthusiasm, this is best represented in songs like “Map of the World,” an energetic romper that twists a rolling surf-rock beat with break-speed strums and strings and polished vocal harmonies. “Bodies of Christ” slows things down and has Caughthran flexing his vocal versatility with soulful vocals more apt for an R&B album. The singer stretches his limits to the extreme, but hell, so does the rest of the band. You’d think Ford and Horne were accustomed to a strict diet of chugging powerchords, yet they strum and pluck a diverse set of guitars, guitarróns and other traditional Mexican strings as dynamically as any seasoned mariachi guitarist. How engaging it is to watch a band go outside their comfort zone, even more so when they prove the chops to do it.

Mariachi music traditionally features melodramatic arrangements and extreme emotion, qualities the band has no trouble channeling. Often, Mariachi El Bronx (II) is doused in minor chords and themes of longing, remorse and existentialism. “I’ve always been reckless and foolish with love/ Always pushing my luck with the spirits above/ My heart is not crazy it’s just too complex/ And with four different lovers you don’t get much rest/ I’ve gone and created a mess,” Caughthran sings on “48 Roses”; how well they adapt their sound to the situation. If Mariachi El Bronx has any fault, it’s the little wiggle room they leave themselves for growth. Where can they possibly take their sound to avoid turning what are consistently fun albums into repetitive and rehashed albums? (Perhaps the Bronx has a potential future with flamenco music?) Even so, it’s ironic that, for a bunch of (mostly) white boys, their worldly counterpart has more zest and musicianship than their original purpose.

by Jory Spadea

Key Tracks: 48 Roses, Map of the World, Bodies of Christ

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