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Backward Rhythms 

Mexico City's Café Tacuba gets experimental with Revés/Yo Soy.

Caf Tacuba: Rockeros from the 'burbs of Mexico City.
  • Caf Tacuba: Rockeros from the 'burbs of Mexico City.
As the name of its latest release, the double-CD Revés/Yo Soy (Backwards/I Am), suggests, Café Tacuba likes to play with words in the same way it likes to play with the different popular musical styles of Mexico and the rest of Latin America.

Revés, the first of the two discs, is a tweaked, all-instrumental collection of 13 songs (albeit track 13 is fourteen seconds of silence) that the group recorded in 1998 with the help of producer Gustavo Santaolalla (Molotov, Fobia, Divididos). Yo Soy boasts 14 tracks (not the 52 that the band has mysteriously encrypted on the disc) of distinctly Café Tacuba vocal songs. Written largely between three and four years ago, Yo Soy is more direct. For the most part, the vocal tracks are tender and evoke the pop-oriented Mexican ballads that Tacuba has written in the past.

The title of the album, however, is suggestive of its skewed thematic content: the word "revés" means backwards, inside out, or reverse in Spanish. If you break the word down into two syllables, you get "re" and "vés." "Re" is part of the diatonic scale (as in do, re, mi), but also the title of Café Tacuba's 1994 masterpiece . "Vés" means "to see." Backwards, the two words are "se ver," which literally means "I know how to see" -- not that Café Tacuba presents a lucid vision on Revés.

"Revés has to do with the clashes between various states of mind: happiness, being agitated, or being tranquil," says drummer/ keyboardist Emmanuel del Real. "It evokes the feelings we have been going through without words."

At first, the album was intended to be a soundtrack to lyrics penned by Mexico City science fiction writer Pepe Rojo. After that plan was scrapped, the quartet took a more spontaneous approach to making music than it had ever done before. Prior to Revés, each member would arrive at the studio with a handful of songs already written -- the vocal album Yo Soy uses this approach. But on Revés, the four band members went to the studio without knowing what the results would be. When it was finished, Café Tacuba didn't call the finished product songs, but "musical moments."

These "musical moments" are odd indeed. The Kronos Quartet -- known for its rock and roll-like arrangements of classical music -- collaborates with the band on "M.C.," an instrumental version of the humorous song "La Muerte Chiquita (The Little Death)," which is found on Yo Soy. Mexico's National Folkloric Dance Company is featured on song "10," a cascading, stomping sound sculpture. "13," also known as "Revés," runs haunting guitars and melodic Wurlitzer piano through electronic filters and has a chorus that boasts, "This is a backward rhythm. This is a rhythm to dance to backwards."

"We wanted to make songs outside of the pop structure, to have elements at the beginning of a song be reflected at its end, but turned on its back," says singer Rubén Albarrán, who's now calling himself Nrü (he changes his name for every album).

When the members of Café Tacuba first met 10 years ago in the Americanized Mexico City suburb of Satélite (locals have taken to calling the band Grupo Satélite, like a norteña band, for putting the suburb on the map), the four were art and design students at the local university. They quickly discovered that they shared a common interest in Mexican regional music, but also in rock groups like Rush, the Cure, and the Smiths.

Its highly stylistic 1992 self-titled debut grabbed alternative music listeners with its collage of Mexican folk edged with stripped-down rock. Rock purists and traditional music lovers alike were scratching their heads when del Real came out with his keyboard, cranking electronic percussion and synthetic orchestral sounds to very giddy rhythms that worked both in a mosh pit and at a polka dance. "Technopolka" was what the band originally called its music.

Its next album, the 20-track , which has been called the White Album of Mexican rock for its groundbreaking material, fused Mexican regional and Pan-Latin elements with rock and pop. The band even encouraged a new wave of rockeros, eager to find new sounds by melding very old Latin rhythms and melodies with modern rock. solidified Café Tacuba's place as one of the most important Latin rock bands, bursting out of the underground and leaving behind some of the more veteran groups like Maldita Vecindad, Santa Sabina, and La Lupita. The album eased the group into the U.S. mainstream, and that only intensified with its follow-up, 1996's Avalancha de Exitos. A collection of covers from such notable figures as Leo Dan, Nacho Cano, and Juan Luis Guerra, Avalancha de Exitos put Café Tacuba on the covers of such American mainstream magazines as Time and Newsweek, which hailed the band as the leader of a burgeoning rock en español movement.

Before going back to the studio after a three-year hiatus, band members say, they were initially tense, and it's evident on Revés/Yo Soy. Yet once the band started writing and recording, tensions eased. "Recording the album released a lot of energy. It cured us, much like medicine does -- and what else can you ask from music than it to be like medicine?" Albarrán says.

With a renewed spirit, the group took the finished product to its label, WEA Latina, but initially didn't get the response it anticipated. Record label execs were baffled and confused. Taking into consideration the crossover attention that the group had garnered, WEA Latina thought that it would be an enormous risk for it to come out with an instrumental album like Revés. The key Latin ingredients that made its past albums so successful are hidden within a maze of ambient and experimental sounds. The lukewarm response from the label even seemed to rattle the band: This summer, Café Tacuba toured nationally with groups like hip-hop heavies Molotov and Control Machete as part of the Watcha Tour (dubbed the Latin Warped tour) but didn't play any new songs in its allotted 30-minute sets. The label feared that Revés wasn't commercially viable enough, so the band had to promise another record that would be more accessible, hence Yo Soy.

"The curious thing about Yo Soy is that, when we showed each other the songs we wanted on the album, we were surprised that we had a thread that held it together," del Real says.

"El Espacio (Space)," for instance, is a song del Real wrote while pondering a rare, smogless Mexico City night sky. The result is a chilling image of a person looking into outer space while asking himself about the possibilities of life elsewhere. The song's delicately arranged distorted pianos, soft guitars, trip-hop beats, and soothing harmonies strike a distinct mood. Other songs, like "El Polen" and "El Rio," make direct references toward mother nature.

"More than contemplating nature, we are inspired by it," explains Nrü, who says he was listening to Stevie Wonder, Burt Bacharach, and 311 during the making of the album. "Our outlook on nature has changed at the same time. While before we may have concentrated on straight lines, today we see how we are more fluid. That's reflected in Revés as well."

For Yo Soy, each one of the four members wrote and performed individual songs, taking turns singing. Again, the songs never quite conform to traditional pop structures. The nearly a cappella, 40-second track "Esperando (Waiting)" features bassist Quique Rangel singing into a megaphone. Songs like "La Locomotora (Locomotive)," "Ave (Bird)," and "Bicicleta (Bicycle)" feature the kind of uptempo, danceable rhythms that could easily have been found on . This is true even for Joselo Rangel's "Padre" (Father), a jarana-driven, Chilean cueca-inspired song about a son looking at himself in the mirror and seeing the man he most hated: his father.

The quartet is not concerned about scaring away fans. ("We have to keep evolving to be interesting to ourselves first," says Nrü.) Still, while previous albums painted big portraits of Mexico City life and Latino life in general, Revés/Yo Soy both retracts the lens inward for an intimate look at the artists and points outward into the vastness of musical possibilities.

"[These albums] say we have distanced ourselves from nature, and that it is backwards," says Nrü. "Our albums help us look at ourselves on the inside a little more."

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