American Music Vol. VII (Blue Corn Music)
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., April 19, 2019
Revisiting Grupo Fantasma's high-water mark, 2015's four-star Problemas, also means reassessing it: five stars – a pitch-perfect pachanga hung on hooks as big as Texas. American Music: Vol. VII doesn't approach its greatness, but it does add a number of instant band standards to a Grammy Award-winning oeuvre fairly overstuffed with them now seven long-players in. Swung to life at Sonic Ranch near the El Paso border, Kino Esparza (lead singer), Jose Galeano (vox/timbales), Gilbert Eloreagga (trumpet), Mark Gonzales (trombone/trumpet), Josh Levy (baritone sax), Beto Martinez (guitar), Greg Gonzalez (bass), John Speice (drums), and Matt Holmes (percussion) all throw down hard on the first half of the new album. Spaghetti Western exhortations in the midsection of opener "El Fugitivo" and everything-South-of-Miami tropicália driving new hit "Nubes" ("Clouds"), with its trumpet bleat and trombone slide punching air above tectonic bass, inebriate immediately. Guesting dhol drummer Sunny Jain of Red Baraat, the English-language "LT" bridges Seventies raza rock to Nineties rock en Español with typically bristling guitar work from Beto Martinez, who also electri-fries Brownout. Similarly aligned, poli-Mex statement "The Wall" guests members of Ozomatli and Locos por Juana over-rapping its initial creeper groove, but its underlying elation ultimately induces stomps. The spellbinding ease, profound musicality, and bottom-line Latin seductiveness of Kino Esparza 100-proofs cantina tragos like "La Cruda," squeezed hard by accordionist Josh Baca, and new Austin Chronicle Hot Sauce Festival theme "Hot Sauce," with its refrain of "hielo" (ice) to cool down a bad burn. Side two of American Music: Vol. VII devolves into busy arrangements ("Nosotros") and subpar cuts ("Ausencia," "Cuidado"), with even peerless soul man Tomar Williams coming across like a clumsy crossover in another English-language track on an LP that needs none. Even so, Austin's Grupo Fantasma remains not only unique in the American music landscape, but uniquely Americano.