Nick Bollinger reviews the new album by eclectic Hispanic-Angeleno quartet Chicano Batman.
If you look at the demographics for Los Angeles, you’ll notice that roughly half the population is Hispanic or Latino; not that you would guess from the music that reaches us here, which is mostly either hip-hop or varieties of white rock. Los Angeles actually has a Hispanic rock tradition, though for reasons we can only speculate, it doesn’t get the international push of its black and white counterparts. Just every so often we get a glimpse though; a Los Lobos or an Ozomatli. And here’s another one.
Chicano Batman are four native Angelenos, all with Hispanic or Latino backgrounds. Singer and organ player Bardo Martinez is the son of a Colombian mother and Mexican father, and he sings in a distinctive croon, while his band lay down some of the coolest grooves I’ve heard in a long time.
If I didn’t know when this record was made, I’m not sure I’d be able to guess. A song like ‘Angel Child’ runs a gamut of styles, from swoony psychedelia to 70s funk, with a dash of Brazilian tropicalia thrown into the mix. It doesn’t really sound contemporary, yet neither is it ostentatiously retro. Antique organ sounds and excellent wah-wah solos notwithstanding, there’s none of the distancing irony in Chicano Batman that so often comes with the borrowing of vintage styles. When Martinez sings of friendship being a small boat in a storm, it’s with a fragile sincerity, in a falsetto full of heart, reminding me of Curtis Mayfield in his Impressions days.
Classic soul might be the biggest influence on this band. Martinez’s singing aside, with just four members, they are in a tradition of soul combos like The Meters or Booker T and the MGs.
Chicano Batman is certainly a groove machine, and that aspect of the band has been brought to the fore by Leon Michels, who produced this, their third album. He’s part of the Brooklyn-based Truth and Soul team who have worked with nouveau-soul artists like Lee Fields, Aloe Blacc and, recently, New Zealand’s own soul queen, Aaradhna. But what of their Chicano heritage? That displays itself in different ways. That organ sound I mentioned earlier might not be exclusive to Chicano rock, but you’ll find it on a surprising number of Hispanic-American hits, going back to ‘Wooly Bully’. There’s the tinge of tropicalia that runs through the record, echoing the sophisticated – if sometimes quite nutty – Brazilian pop of the 60s and 70s.
Far more obviously, though, there are a couple of songs are sung in Spanish. ‘La Jura’ (Spanish slang for ‘the police’) is a personal tale of police brutality, and it’s not the only moment here where Chicano Batman reflects on injustice, from their experience as Hispanic Americans. In ‘The Taker Story’ Bardo Martinez gets into some serious metaphysical musing.
And the observation that ‘man is only one strand in the web of life’ is echoed in the title track, ‘Freedom Is Free’. It’s simultaneously a good groove, a statement about equality, and a reminder to any figure of oppression, whether it’s an armed cop or the man in the White House, that there are oceans and galaxies greater than any of them, and that, as far as nature is concerned, we are all equal.
Songs featured: Passed You By, Angel Child, Friendship Is A Small Boat, Right Off The Back, La Jura, The Taker Story.
Freedom Is Free is available on ATO Records.