Los Straitjackets, the lucha libre-masked surf instrumentalists from another planet (Nashville, actually, which is far-out enough) have wrestled with Latin influences before, but never as they have on this year's Rock En Español, Vol. 1. The record begins with a scorching run-through of "De Dia y De Noche" (the Kinks' "All Day and All of the Night") and ends with "Tu Te Vas" (Barbara Lynn's "You'll Lose a Good Thing"), which may have never been sung in Spanish before. In between, the band calls on LA legend Willie G., Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos and Big Sandy (with whom they are currently touring) to resurrect the spirit of young Mexican bands who screwed with American and British rock and soul in the '60s.
It's the sound of the border going berserk and a party loud enough to send the Minutemen back to their safe Anglo homes where they belong. Straitjacket bassist Peter Curry gave B-Sides his translation of it all.
B-Sides: How do I know if you're wearing the mask now or not?
Peter Curry: You don't. Whatever you want to imagine is fine.
Do you guys have a street team in St. Louis? Or a graffiti artist working for you?
Uh, no. We don't have anything like that anywhere.
Well, someone painted a Mexican wrestler, in full mask and suit jacket, on an overpass near my house.
Don't know anything about that. Kind of interesting. Not that I would support graffiti.
This album is such a natural for you. So what took so long?
Once we got started recording, it went pretty quick. A lot of it was, we wanted to make sure the time was right, that Big Sandy and us too had time to tour. We're already talking about a second volume.
I was unfamiliar with the Mexican rock sources. Where did you find them?
Some of them we had translated for us, some we got from Mexican records. In any country where music is popular, someone is going to take a current hit and translate it. For my tastes anyways, the Mexicans did it in way that was more exciting, more loose and kind of immediate. They'd get the record, translate and record, in slightly more primitive conditions. We tried to stay on that track, not make it too tidy.
To a neophyte, how would describe the relation between surf rhythms and Latin rhythms?
Well, there isn't a whole lot of Latin sounds on the record. We weren't trying to sound Latin. We were just playing rock & roll sung in Spanish. In surf, it's maybe not the rhythms, but in the scales. A lot of minor stuff. Oh, and the use of maracas.
The record is like an instant fiesta.
Sometimes the easiest ones to make are the easiest to listen to. This record was very easy to make, for us, and everyone involved with it. Sometimes when we work on records and we labor over them, you can hear all the work, rather than having some kind of joy projected. Roy Kasten 10 p.m. Friday, September 14. Beale On Broadway, 701 South Broadway. $12. 314-621-7880.
Nothing in Common
In his continuing crusade against hip-hop, FOX News polemicist Bill O'Reilly recently went on the attack against NYC rapper Nas. He tagged the Queensbridge emcee a "gangster rapper," and claimed that by performing at a benefit for the Virginia Tech victims, Nas was "insulting the murder victims." In fact, understanding that the noisome provisions of free speech protect artists such as Nas, he next took aim at those who enable the first amendment by dubbing Virginia Tech president Dr. Charles Steiger a "coward" and demanding that he be fired immediately.
Of course, O'Reilly conveniently overlooks the fact that Nas' lyrics track the full arc of violence, chronicling everything from the initial sparks of aggression to the bullet's trajectory, before zooming out to examine how the outlying lives, homes and communities are subsequently affected.
It's doubtful that O'Reilly, or his millions of listeners and viewers, and the legions of wannabes who infect our airwaves, have ever taken the time to actually listen to rap lyrics. If they had, they'd notice a complex dialogue on issues of race, violence and class. Nowhere is this important conversation more evident than in the music of Common.
The Chicago emcee got his start over a decade ago. In his early lyrics, he championed a transformation in hip-hop from the bling and gun blast of Bad Boy/Death Row-era hip-hop to a more morally tenable and socially conscious mutation of the art. And while Common still gives lip service to the ideas and ideals of the mid-'90s boho set on his new album, Finding Forever, those songs are the weakest of the set. On "The People," for example, Common sounds trite and noncommittal as he champions the unspecified masses who hunger for freedom, truth and Obama.
But as with most who speak of the nobility of "the people," when Common takes a closer look at individual lives, he's far more cynical. The two main characters in "Drivin' Me Wild" (a delectable bit of post-Gorillaz electro anchored by Lily Allen's effervescent hook) are driven by their impulses and delusions. The beautiful "Misunderstood," meanwhile, captions a typically smoky Nina Simone snippet between the production's sweeping, melancholic soul, and features the Chi-town rapper tracking the spiritual disillusionment of a hustler and a stripper.
What's wonderful about these songs is that Common is able to link the public and the private their characters have problems that speak to the larger struggle, enabling Common to comment on social problems without seeming didactic. The songs' inhabitants search for meaning, but more often than not find that their dreams lead them astray.
Of course, the ultimate fallen dream for black America is the idea of equality, and Common eloquently speaks on that in the excellent "U Black, Maybe." He claims that "a white man's yes is a black man's maybe," but unlike in previous generations, the enemy is as likely to wear a BAPE hoodie as a KKK hood. He illustrates this by chronicling the rise and fall of a basketball player who is gunned down by jealous friends, and concludes the song with a spoken-word outro stating, "We talk about situations of people of color, and because you are that color, you endure obstacles and opposition, and not all the time from other nationalities, sometimes it comes from your kind, or maybe even your own mind."
It's doubtful that any of Finding Forever's insight would change the right's estimation of hip-hop. Subtlety, complexity and context are lost when you're waging a race war. And for those who traffic in fear and innuendo, thoughtful rappers such as Common and Nas are just angry black men talking up guns, hos and bitches. These conservative pundits aren't attacking obscenity in hip-hop, they're targeting hip-hop. Take nothing for granted. Sam Chennault 8 p.m. Wednesday, September 19. Pageant, 6161 Delmar Boulevard. $27.50 to $35. 314-726-6161.