August 17, 2004

Grupo Fantasma "Movimiento Popular"

I must begin this review with a disclaimer. I’m a good friend of 25% of this band’s roster, but as usual, I assure you that my critical nepotism is worth it. I once joked to Grupo saxophonist David Lobel that the Tejano music I heard on the radio every day sounded like “Mexican zydeco” to me: corny, repetitive accordion-driven songs that all sounded the same. Dave thought my analogy was hilarious, and proposed to the rest of Fantasma that their second album should be called Mexican Zydeco. The idea got shot down rather quickly, dismissed by singer Brian Ramos with three curt words: "I hate Tejano.” While it was nice to know that Ramos shared my dislike of the sub-genre, the experience was a sobering reminder to me of how little I truly know about Latin music. While I’m not foolish enough to assume that all Latin music sounds the same, I couldn’t tell you the difference between a cumbia, a salsa, a son, or a rumba. I’m half Hispanic and I can’t speak Spanish to save my life. Fortunately, you don’t have to be a bilingual musicologist, or even a “world music” freak, to enjoy the music of Grupo Fantasma. Besides, the band ended up choosing a much better name for their sophomore effort in the long run: Movimiento Popular, or “Popular Movement.”

The name works for the album on two different levels. For one, it’s a reflection of the band’s ability to weave snippets of every possible genre that is conducive to dancing into their music. Grupo Fantasma are traditional enough not to piss purists off, but experimental enough to attract listeners outside of the Tex-Mex subculture. You can hear jazz in the four-piece horn section’s extremely tight arrangements. They use counterpoint and dissonance in ways that I haven’t heard in non-jazz music since the last time I dusted off my Chicago and Tower of Power records. You can hear dub in the minimal bass lines and the various distortions and echo tricks employed in the production. Many songs integrate Jamaican dance-hall riddims. “Sukulenta” features some jarring turntable scratching, and album closer “Ya No Puedo” is discotheque funk through and through. With its synth-bass, wah-wah guitars, and sultry female harmonies, “Puedo” should have been the music heard in the background when Rick James’ five fingers said “slap” to Charlie Murphy’s face. Unlike their self-titled debut, though, the songs on Movimiento Popular can’t be easily compartmentalized into separate genres (as in "this is the jazz song,” “this is the rock song,” et cetera). However, even when “Vacilon” storms through the gate with Headbanger’s Ball guitars, the mission remains clear: “Grupo Fantasma want you to move,” Ramos and percussionist Jose Galeano sing.

The name “Popular Movement” also betrays the earthbound subject matter that Grupo focuses on in its songs. (Keep in mind that the lyrics are entirely in Spanish, and my assertions are based on extremely rough English translations of the lyrics, which means that I might be completely wrong.) “Montero” is sung from the point of view of a man who flees town after being wrongfully accused of murder. A cavernous guitar riff straight out of a Western movie bisects the song, punctuated by gunshot sound effects. “Utility Rock” is one of the album’s catchiest songs even if you don’t know Spanish, but translating the lyrics is worth it for the hilarious anecdotes about getting your utilities disconnected ‘cause you’re too broke to pay the bills. “Oye Mi Cumbia” is a song of thanks to God, and the very next track, “Chocolate,” is a plea for listeners to resist the sweet temptations of the devil. “Soy El Hombre” chastises men who value material possessions more than human relationships. Of course, as the album goes on the songs go back to less weighty topics: pretty women, dancing with pretty women, possibly having sex with pretty women, et cetera… Regardless of the subject matter, the music stays consistently joyful. A small kid with braids dances on the album’s cover. Maybe the prevailing message of this album is that our mundane daily lives are more of a party than we actually realize. You may not agree with this outlook, but that still doesn’t take away from the fact that it is virtually IMPOSSIBLE to listen to this album without cracking a smile or dancing.

Through intelligent use of panning, the mix of the album is simultaneously dense and spacious, ensuring that all 12 members of the band are heard clearly without getting in each other’s way. Everything seems to harmonize with everything else, from Ramos’ and Galeano’s sonorous tenors to the guitars and horns. Although a slight sheen has been applied to these recordings in the studio, Grupo is just as capable of pulling off such multi-layered arrangements live. One song, “Seis Seis Seis,” serves a proof, with its live-to-2-track recording sounding different from the rest of the record ONLY because of the increase in reverb. As talented as these musicians are, they humbly suppress their egos by keeping their songs in concise three-and-a-half-minute packages, only allowing the occasional horn or guitar solo to poke through. This is truly an ENSEMBLE, with every musician and singer playing to serve the song instead of showing off their skills. Excellent in almost every conceivable facet, Movimiento Popular is a total package from a band that was already one of Austin’s best bets to begin with. Genres and language barriers, be damned: this is BOUND to be one of 2004’s best albums.

--Sean Padilla

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