To those who grew up hearing -- and watching -- the best Brazilian and Afro-Cuban bands on the planet, chances are Ozomatli are L.A.'s most overrated band. When the Ozos go batucada, it seems as if the surdo is being hit with an ax instead of a palo, and when they switch to Afro-Cuban mid-song -- as they love to do, traversing multiple rhythms per track -- they sound contrived. On their self-titled 1998 debut, the songs (or absence thereof) didn't really justify an amateurish desire to pee in every swimming pool, regardless of whether the pool belonged to a more qualified swimmer. Why, then, all the Ozomatli craze?
True, they're L.A.'s ultimate multicultural band, and the ambassadors for a clean-cut activism that's been gaining momentum ever since capitalism destroyed the Berlin Wall. But anyone who's honest and uninterested in musical and barrio correctness knows that there are two real reasons Ozomatli's made so much noise: First, there's that monstrous PR campaign, in which they inundated the city with Ozo stickers on every street sign and freeway on-ramp. And then, of course, there's the band's desire to play, play, play, play, play, anytime and anyplace someone is willing to listen. In the three years since Ozomatli, that's really all they've done -- and now, after all that, they've inadvertently managed to release an album named Embrace the Chaos on the same day that a group of spineless wackos hijacked four airplanes and, well, you know the rest.
But don't hold the timing against them -- nothing they could do about it. And though the album was created in the midst of the Democratic Convention and spotted with whining about some guy named Clinton (ring a bell?), Chaos reveals a band that has finally grown up. Wil-Dog (a bassist as precise as a Swiss watchmaker), Raúl Pacheco (stringed instruments, voice; an all-around master who could play in any Cuban charanga), and Asdrúbal Sierra (okay as a trumpeter, glorious as a singer) join with new rapper Anthony Stout to form the backbone of a band that, for the first time, is giving signs of serious, kick-ass songwriting. Ozo has chilled out mix-wise, preferring to concentrate on one style per song. True, they still can't help throwing spices into anything they cook, but this time it's not a problem, because the songs that work, work.
Forget pathetic stuff like "Guerrillero" ("I'm a guerrilla/I want to go back to the front," saved only by Asdru's Andalusian-flavored vocals, even if he doesn't know where or what Andalusia is) -- the meat in Ozo's new album comes from tracks like "Vocal Artillery," which confirms that Ozo (surprise!) really functions only when it stays away from the compañero fusion and sticks to what it knows best; and "Mi Alma" (My Soul), a quebradita-reggae-ska-salsa-cumbia-ranchera all rolled into one that works not because of the band's musicianship, but because it's just a great song. The best Ozomatli is yet to come. But if the debut album, with a reputation far bigger than its musical strength, turned them into a household party name, this one -- produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos along with Mario C and Bob Power -- should turn Ozomatli into a band that really matters.
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