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Music Reviews

Tito Nieves
En Otra Onda
WEA Caribe 88141-2 Salsa

Album cover

We took some pleasure it noticing that the latest addition to the much-hyped "Latin Explosion", Ricky Martin's album, Sound Loaded, sank without much of a trace. Over -produced, over-promoted and under-funded in regards to real talent, this big corporate mess represented so much of what is wrong with music today. Unfortunately, bad "kiddie pop", as author Will Friedwald calls it, will always be with us and clever marketers who made such a mess out of things in the first place, might now declare that the "Latin Explosion" is over.

Salsa (along with Country & Western, as a matter of fact) is a genre in a very sorry state. The powers that be have decided to take the interesting parts out, homogenize what's left, and then market the product to mentally unbalanced teenagers, trying to get some of their non-Backstreet Boys dollars. Is this what's left of the legacy of Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Pee Wee King and Bob Wills? Of course there's more, but you wouldn't know it from the state of things on the radio or MTV. Part of the problem is that Rock and R&B have gone so far off the mainstream map that anything with a pretty melody or an actual rhythm is going to be homeless unless it's performed for Country or Latin audiences. And in order for the labels to recoup their incredible losses (from merging and selling each other, by the way, not from lack of consumer dollars or the Internet), each hit has to be a mega hit, not just a hit.

And now along comes Tito Nieves' En Otra Onda. It's very pop-oriented, full of pre-programmed synthesizers and has an exhausting, manic atmosphere. So why do we like it? Instead of "Latin-izing" bland Pop-Rock songs that sound as if they've been written by a committee and an army of marketers (as opposed to a composer), Nieves and producer/arranger Sergio George take Latin songs and modernize them with elements of pop, soul and hip hop. It's not as great as classic Salsa but it's really good, very danceable and it sounds like Nieves is making music he likes rather than just chasing an elusive hit. He doesn't hit it 100% of the time, but he's close, and it's a glimpse of what the "Latin Explosion" could have been. Or what we had foolishly hoped it would be.

Tito Nieves has been around for years. He started out as lead vocalist with the Puerto Rican group Conjunto Classico and has enjoyed success as a solo artist under Ralph Mercado's RMM Records dynasty that went belly up recently. He has always sounded "modern" but he's been solid as a vocalist, even when the music went a little off track. We've publicly complained about RMM's ability to take a line of percussionists and make them sound like computers, but Nieves had more savvy than most on the label and understood how to update the sound. His biggest hit was probably his cover of Pete Rodriguez' old Boogaloo Classic I Like It Like That, heard first in a film with the same name and later as part of a Burger King commercial.

Tito Nieves isn't being given the big push because of his weight. Frankly, he's huge and seems to be getting huger. In our heart, we really believe that most music buyers don't care but given the success of Mr. Martin, Britney Spears and even a lot of rappers, it really seems that people, especially very young ones, are more interested in a total image package rather than the music. It's nothing new, but it seems to be getting worse.

We don't want to suggest that Tito Nieves' En Otra Onda is a masterpiece or that we're about to toss out our old Willie Colon, Celia Cruz or Tito Puente recordings, but it's very good and sometimes great. We're not making comparisons with the more roots-oriented Buena Vista Social Club recordings or Latin Jazz. It's Latin Pop, updated and ready for dancing.

The opener, Un Amor Asi, is very typical Tito Nieves. The first sounds are a wild synthesizer and drum machine but before you know what's going on, the percussion adds a traditional clave beat (slow-slow-slow-quick-quick). Nieves' creamy smooth voice humanizes the sound and by the chorus the hips are swaying.

Como Llego a Tu Amor is a sizzling duet with Rueben Blades who sounds better than ever. The album's bolero is a very beautiful Como Antes. Also solid are Amarte Asi and En El Desierro.

It's not all bueno, however. The second track, Shut Up, feels like pandering to the kids with its silliness and Spanglish nonsense. Matame de Amor suffers from a very contrived melody, almost a pseudo-Flamenco mess that would be more appropriate for a Boy Band pursuing Latin Pop.

Que Mas Daria features the famous arranger Sergio George on vocals along with Nieves. George is responsible for some of the best and much of the worst of Latin music over the last few years. We understand and sympathize with his need to update his favorite genre, but at times he's made a computerized, synthetic mess of things. As we've said, he's struck a nice balance between the traditional and the modern on this album, but it's really fascinating to hear him sing on this track. He has a very sweet, high voice that is at odds with his "street creed" image. He should keep his day job as he's not particularly effective as a singer, but he's not bad.

We've asked ourselves why we've been so taken with this recording or given it so much thought. It might be that we felt a little hope when Ricky Martin burst on to that Grammy stage and showed the world what some of us have known for years, that the marriage of European melody and African rhythms has produced one of the most infectious styles of music. It could be the disappointment when we saw Ricky Martin shake his "bon bon" with no variation one too many times, to music that wasn't worthy of shaking a finger, let alone a "bon bon". Our hunch that we like this album so much is that as a content-starved media declares this the age of the "Latin Explosion", the music we've loved is ending and En Otra Onda is possibly a small ray of hope.



Joanie Sommers
Let's Talk About Love
Collectors Choice CCM208-2

 

Album cover

It turns out that if ever there was a candidate for reissue on compact disc, Joanie Sommers' Let's Talk About Love is it. We've owned a scratchy old record for years and never given it much thought. The opening title song, a very contrived piece of nothing with a mock Rock beat, teamed with Ms Sommers romping around the cover in a very weird Peter Pan outfit, never inspired us to go beyond all the scratches and discover the rest of the album.

Now this pristine reissue from Collectors Choice rights a horrible wrong. Let's Talk About Love is great! In 1962, young Joanie Sommers teamed with young Tommy Oliver to produce a collection of mostly standards and oldies. Predating Joni Mitchell's pretentious, but pretty Both Sides Now album of standards, also held together by the story of a love affaire, there is a vague story line that you would miss if it weren't spelled out for you on the jacket. More important is Joanie Sommers way with a song. One gets the idea that she studied the melodies inside and out before presenting a real tour de force performance. We don't know of better versions of Spring Is Here, Something's Coming, Make the Man Love Me or Till There Was You and that's saying a lot. The latter, in particular, gets the real Sommers treatment. It's a big bold flag-waver with mixed tempos and a lot of pep.

Joanie's version of Al Hibbler's signature piece, After the Lights Go Down Low, is a real drag, but other than that, this disc is solid. So solid, in fact, it makes you wonder why there isn't more press about such a great release. Madonna gets lots of press, in case you haven't noticed. But amazingly, her voice sounds exactly the same as it did almost 20 years ago. This is not a good thing. At all. Her tastes may have matured but her delivery and the quality of voice are closer to that of an adolescent girl singing along with the radio instead of a woman who's loved a little life. The miracle of Joanie Sommers is that in her early 20s, she sounded like a mature, fully developed person- a feat Madonna has yet to achieve.

The notes to Let's Talk About Love hint that the rest of the Joanie Sommers catalogue form this era is soon to be released. That's fine news, but even better would be an announcement that Sommers was back in the studio recording again. Her last recordings have been great, but small labels with poor distribution aren't going to make much of an impact.



 



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5 Martinis = Classic
4 Martinis = Great
3 Martinis = Good
2 Martinis = Fair
1 Martini = Poor

 

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