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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Will the real Arjona please stand up?

In a weekend performance, the Guatemalan pop star comes off as superficial and pretentious -- with surprising moments of sincerity.

August 18, 2003|Ernesto Lechner | Special to The Times

At first listen, Ricardo Arjona seems to be the most sensitive singer-songwriter in all of Latin music. Every carefully chosen word in the Guatemalan star's lyrics, every nuance of his slyly constructed pop-rock choruses grabs you, demanding constant attention.

"Aren't I deep?" is the underlying message that lurks beneath Arjona's songs. "And romantic? And wonderfully poetic and bohemian, too?"

Not quite, Ricardo.

Arjona's impossibly self-absorbed performance on Friday, the first of two evenings at the Universal Amphitheatre, showcased the elements that have turned him into a major Latin pop commercial force.

First, there's the stunning instrumental dexterity of his multipiece band. Then the bombastic hooks, which recycle previous bits and pieces from other Latin pop sources. And most important, there's Arjona himself -- the rebellious cascade of long hair, the casually elegant dark clothes, the perpetual "I am ready for my close-up now" smirk and pose.

If only there were some truth behind the painful banality of his messages. But all Arjona does is murmur pseudo-philosophical platitudes about the feminine mystique, the kind of adulatory generalities that you find in glossy ladies' magazines.

Arjona is at his best when his colorful vignettes of life in Latin America veer toward the comedic -- as in the charming "Buenas Noches Don David," the perceptive account of a young man's visit to his neighbor with the objective of asking for the hand of his daughter in marriage. The tune is made particularly effective by wind instruments that underscore the tale's passages of humor and tension.

It is in such moments that the singer's sincerity transcends the pervasive cliches of the material. At that point, it becomes hard to separate Arjona the Pretentious Narcissist from Arjona the Disarming Troubadour -- and harder yet to determine which one of the two personas describe him best.

Perhaps we'll never know.

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