"Buleria" (Vale Music/Universal)
In the depressed international music market, Spain continues to be a bright spot with a wave of interesting recent releases -- from the resplendent guitar of Paco de Lucia to the dark hip-hop of La Mala Rodriguez. But not all the music coming from La Madre Patria (The Mother Country) deserves an "¡ole!"
Bisbal, a charismatic and gifted young singer, made his international debut with an electrifying performance at last year's Latin Grammys, where he won for best new artist.
But there's only a taste of that compelling power in his new album, named for a type of flamenco rhythm. The native of Almeria, a coastal city in southern Spain, attempts to tap into the region's deep well of Gypsy passion with flamenco guitars and other superficial touches. But his rootsy dabblings smack of commercialized cliches, a la the Gipsy Kings. And that's a sin for a son of Andalucia.
Overall, this is a fairly conventional pop album, churned out by the music machine of Miami-based producer Kike Santander, who contributes several songs. Santander produces romantic Latin fare that consistently sells big but rarely satisfies the soul. For all its orchestral bombast, his work is fairly bloodless.
At times the overblown arrangements actually smother Bisbal's strongest asset -- the subtleties of his beautiful voice. Bisbal's style and tenor resemble those of another Latin heartthrob, Mexico's Luis Miguel. But Bisbal's voice has the capacity to convey more character and convincing emotion, when the producers allow it. .
Discovered through Spain's counterpart to "American Idol," Bisbal has sold more than 700,000 copies of "Buleria" in his homeland and has become a sensation throughout Latin America. But he needs to find his own voice and material with more personality to match his own. Otherwise, he risks being dismissed as the Spanish Kelly Clarkson.
Smooth blends of pop and flamenco
Andy & Lucas
"Andy & Lucas" (BMG U.S. Latin)
This is an impressive debut from two 20-year-old friends from the Spanish port of Cadiz, a flamenco stronghold. It exemplifies the compelling pop being produced by a new generation of Spaniards who don't strictly adhere to flamenco but carry the music in their blood. The result is a warm, accessible set of 12 songs brimming with pop appeal but infused with flamenco's stirring soulfulness and sophistication.
Andy Morales and Lucas Gonzalez, buddies from the same barrio since childhood, studied guitar together in school and started playing clubs at 16. The experience shows in their smooth and natural harmonies.
Lucas writes all the songs, almost conversational tales of youthful heartbreak and optimism. In a lovely ode to their hometown, "Un rinconcito al sur" (A little corner to the south), the duo evokes the simple pleasures of provincial life by the sea. And in a tune addressed to a victim of domestic violence, the tender "Y en tu ventana" (And at your window), they dream of impossible ways to rescue her, closing with a stark observation about the fears that keep her trapped.
The album, a Top 10 hit in Spain, was produced by rock en espanol pioneer Alejo Stivel, who recently worked with Joaquin Sabina, one of Spain's most respected singer-songwriters. Stivel brings a craftsman's maturity to the project without dampening the duo's fresh, youthful sound.
Unlike the empty global pop produced for their compatriot Bisbal, this album glows with the likable personalities of two talented young men from a little corner of Spain.
Improvisation gives spice to salsa
"Travesia" (Sony International)
This young Puerto Rican was once considered the last hope for authentic New York-style salsa in an era of flaccid, formula salsa romantica. The promise faded in the blur of eight indistinguishable albums over the past 11 years, but the singer's latest work finally fulfills expectations and revives, albeit dimly, the hopes for this floundering genre.
Surprisingly, the work is produced by Miami's Emilio Estefan, who is not known for his salsa street credentials. But Estefan, along with arrangers Ricardo and Alberto Gaitan, has created a richly textured work that expertly blends Latin pop elements into an authentic mix of Afro-Caribbean rhythms, all highlighting Manuelle's improvisational vocal skills.
Listen to the bluesy organ and funky groove of "Yo te dare," a tune contributed by Colombian Carlos Vives. And the old-school salsa of "Si me preguntan" even features a piano solo, a jazzy element that has become almost extinct in commercial salsa albums. Still missing, however, are the gritty, true-life barrio themes that made the best salsa songs a window on a culture and a way of life.
But there's still hope.
The reality is, the album is wanting
"Fantasia o Realidad" (Warner Music Latina)