by Phil Freeman
Café Tacvba were one of the most exciting bands of the 1990s. They were omnivores, absorbing and blending a broad range of musical styles including psychedelia, punk rock, ska, and Mexican folk, but none of their work ever felt like winking pastiche. Indeed, they seemed to view these disparate sounds as pieces to be fit into a mosaic, with the finished image being a portrait of Mexico and of themselves. Their 1999 release, Revés/Yo Soy, is their masterpiece, pairing a disc of arty, noisy, drum-machine-driven folk-rock songs with a disc of instrumentals that includes manipulated recordings of the Compañía Nacional de Danza Fólclorica del Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes and a version of the band’s song “La Muerte Chiquita” performed by the Kronos Quartet.
I got to see Café Tacvba perform live in 2002, in the tiny NYC club BB King’s. It was one of the most exciting shows I’ve ever been to in my life. Vocalist Rubén Albarrán is about 4’11”, and he was wearing a white shirt, white pants, and a white wool hat with eyeholes and what looked like a red rooster’s crest on top. He strutted around the stage, singing in his hoarse, slightly desperate but still romantic voice as a joyous and almost entirely Latin crowd, packed so tight the walls were sweating, howled every word back at him. The band—guitarist José Rangel, bassist Enrique Rangel (yes, they’re brothers), and multi-instrumentalist Emmanuel del Real, plus live drummer Luis Ledezma—exploded with energy on every single song. They were amazing.
Six years later, I interviewed Albarrán and Enrique Rangel. At that time, they told me about how issues of identity and culture fueled their music. Rangel explained, “I think we tried to make a rock band, but discovered that there were some elements in our Mexican contemporary culture that weren’t included in the music that people were doing, so we appropriated them and they easily and naturally became part of our sound. So that’s how we started to make a rock band that sounded different than what was happening.”
Still, Tacvba have never allowed cultural consciousness to curdle into explicit political grandstanding. “I think our music has political content,” Rangel told me, “but we are not telling people what they should do and sometimes we use a lot of images and metaphors, not to talk about an issue but to talk about our point of view in life. Sometimes the political contents of a lyric could be a pamphlet or propaganda, and I think with our group, the fact of ourselves making the music we do, it’s a political statement.”
Albarrán added a few specific examples: “The way, for example, we decided never to do commercials for any brand. We have decided not to sing in English just to reach an audience. So for us, this is like our political position. And I think all the body of our work, it is the political position of the band. We don’t need to have a specific lyric talking about a specific thing. We have never played for a [political] party, because inside the band we have different political positions, and we don’t want to do it. When there is for example a charity concert or something like that, we think it is fine to do it.”
Café Tacvba have just released a new album, Jei Beibi, pronounced “Hey Baby.” (Get it from Amazon.) It’s their first new music in five years. Their last album, El Objecto Antes Llamado Disco, was short (10 songs in less than 39 minutes) and mostly maintained a single mood throughout. It was subdued and restrained, never gloomy but never excitable or joyous the way they’d been in the past. The most rocking tracks, “Aprovéchate” and “Lo Busco,” didn’t show up till the album’s second half. The former was a midtempo throb with loud drums but little momentum; it sort of hovered in place. The latter sounded like Franz Ferdinand circa Tonight (that’s a compliment).
Other songs were almost gloomy. The album opener, “Pájaros,” featured Albarrán singing at the top of his range over simple keyboard melodies; he sounded uncannily like Jon Anderson of Yes. Throughout the disc, the drum machines (they only use live drummers on tour) ticked and thumped impassively, like cooling engines. The guitars and bass had an early ’00s postpunk-revival sound, clanging with reverb. From its title (which translates to The Object Formerly Called an Album) on down, it felt like a nostalgic gesture, but not one that really harkened back to Tacvba’s own past. Instead, they were dressing up as a “Modern Rock” (in the sense of a genre or a radio format) band, borrowing that persona for 40 minutes in lieu of honestly facing what it meant to be Café Tacvba in 2012. (All the more ironic, and weird, that the songs were recorded live in the studio, with small audiences present.)
Jei Beibi is immediately more uptempo and high-energy than El Objeto; its first track, “1-2-3,” which kicks off with the title phrase, rides an almost disco-rock groove, with slick funk guitar and oozing analog synths, like a cross between Daft Punk‘s Human After All and Prince‘s debut. The 92-second “Automatico” has the twitchy jumpiness and primitive pocket-calculator synths of New Wave; “Futuro” rides a stomping beat with dubstep-warped bass slipping around Albarrán’s feet as he sings in a variety of distorted, childlike voices, only gradually; guitars are used for punctuation, not melody or structure. “El Mundo en Que Naci” sounds like Tacvba’s homage to Radiohead‘s Kid A—Albarrán even matches Thom Yorke‘s morose, murmuring vocal cadences. “Vaiven” is a dramatic ballad that slowly builds from a minimalist rhythm and a looping acoustic guitar figure; booming undersea-sounding drums and electronic buzzes and rumbles come in, the whole thing building until, in its final 30 seconds, it dissolves into digital static and disruption. There are some more conventional “rock” songs, too, of course. They may not be as superficially interesting, but they carry a charge all their own, and they sit comfortably alongside the weirder tracks, implying that the creative space between being an aging, 20th century rock band in the 21st century and being a bunch of former art students who still like to surprise themselves and each other in the recording studio is one they’re happy to straddle.
Another thing Rangel told me back in 2008 feels very resonant in light of this new album, which comes a little more than 25 years into the group’s lifespan. “You can say the members, the composers of Café Tacvba are people who have had lives,” he said. “I think Café Tacvba is the relationship between these four people who have shared [our lives], and we are like an entity. It’s not easy for anybody else to get in there. We have had a relationship, for example, with Gustavo [Santaolalla, their frequent producer] or with our manager, but still, Café Tacvba is this entity.”
The feeling of a self-contained unit making its art on its own terms—with, crucially, zero membership changes—is all over this album. It’s something that’s as audible in Radiohead or ZZ Top or Rush as it is in Café Tacvba, and it makes me wonder if a certain kind of music-making is only possible by working with the same people for a quarter of a century or more. That kind of longevity and commonality of purpose gives you the ability to walk away for five years between albums, if necessary, and when you come back, you can just step right into your spot. Jei Beibi sounds nothing like Café Tacvba‘s jumpy, capering early work, or their arty middle-period work, but it’s undeniably them: the questing spirit that has always animated Albarrán, the Rangel brothers, and del Real is audible in every note.