"MTV Unplugged" (Sony BMG)
Ever since the end of his "vida loca" days, Ricky Martin has been trying to be taken seriously. He's made a good Spanish album or two but with little impact. He toured but came across as outdated.
The formula of his new "MTV Unplugged" CD seems an unlikely vehicle to establish artistic credentials, given its retrospective nature. But by reinventing his old hits in an acoustic setting with a monster band, Martin has finally reinvented himself. We discover an artist who is mature, grounded and focused on musicality, not celebrity.
The first revelation is the choice of songs. "The Cup of Life," his breakthrough World Cup ballad, isn't here. Neither is "Livin' la Vida Loca," the 1999 mega-hit that ushered in the crossover craze. Commercially, Martin was never able to live up to that song. Or live it down, artistically. So best just forget it for this session.
That leaves his ample pre-crossover work, music that made him a solo star in Latin America after Menudo. Martin and his robust band, led by guitarist David Cabrera, transform once superficial dance numbers such as "Maria" and "La Bomba" into exciting, swinging tropical celebrations with flamenco touches and pan-Caribbean accents.
Who would have thought that Martin would be making some of the tastiest salsa music of 2006? The inclusion of a cuatro, a Puerto Rican guitar with a bright sound, adds an appealing, rootsy flavor to a big band with horns, strings and a powerful rhythm section.
The second big surprise is the CD's three new songs. "Tu Recuerdo" (Your Memory) is a beautiful love song written by producer and fellow Puerto Rican Tommy Torres. For this splendid duet, Martin doesn't return to the usual suspects among his Miami neighbors (Shakira, Sanz). He features the relatively unknown Mari from Spain's fabulous flamenco chill band, Chambao. It's a magical choice.
The CD closes with "Pegate," an uplifting blast of a bomba, a native Puerto Rican style. Co-written by Martin, the tune touches an ageless theme in tropical music: The rhythm can ease your troubles.
And in the case of this still evolving star, it can also make you born again.
"El Tren de los Momentos" (Warner Music Latina)
Sometimes the toughest act to follow is your own. Spanish pop superstar Alejandro Sanz took a creative leap forward with his previous work, "No Es lo Mismo" ("That's Not the Same Thing"), one of the best Latin records of 2003. The provocative title track was a stream-of-consciousness commentary built on clever wordplay flowing on a meandering melodic stream. With it, Sanz hit on a style that was both traditional and original, drawing on elements of flamenco and sly bohemian pop poetry.
Sanz is joined again on "El Tren de los Momentos," his new 10-song set, by Cuban producer Lulo Perez, who lent a groovy Caribbean touch to the previous album. On this outing, however, the team has lost its chemistry -- and its way. Before trying to replicate the recipe that yielded yesterday's masterpiece, Sanz and Perez should have heeded the advice suggested in the new title: Once the train has left the station, the moment is gone.
The success of the last album rested in its well-crafted, scintillating songs. And that's where this one disappoints. None of these songs comes close to the philosophical depth or melodic complexity of "Mismo." In the first single, the dark and depressing "A la Primera Persona" (To the First Person), Sanz is down in the dumps, along with his muse, and never climbs out.
Shakira contributes a guest vocal on "Te Lo Agradezco, Pero No" (Thanks, but No), reciprocating Sanz's guest spot on her smash hit "La Tortura." But not even she can shake this tune out of its rut. The same goes for the guest guitar solo by Colombian superstar Juanes, on the lame "Peleita," which also features one of the rappers from the irreverent reggaeton/hip-hop duo Calle 13.
With all that star power, mostly from Sanz's Miami neighbors, you'd expect fireworks, but it backfires. Even Sanz's plaintive, flamenco-tinged vocals -- so distinctive and affecting on the last album -- border on irritating yowling at times here.
Every artist can have a slump. Here's hoping Sanz's train gets back on track real quick.
Los Van Van
"Chapeando" (Ahi-Nama Music)
For almost 40 years, Los Van Van has been on the cutting edge of Cuban dance music, developing new fusions, rhythms and patterns of playing drums and piano. This astounding band has been dismissed more than once along the way, only to come back twice as strong.
Its latest release, "Chapeando," comes at a time when the Cuban fad in the U.S. has faded, along with dreams of capturing the U.S. market. So Van Van, like other bands, has retrenched on the island, away from the marketing hype that nearly destroyed their music.
This album, recorded in 2004, is just now being distributed in the U.S. It's a sign of the slump that until now nobody wanted to release the latest by the greatest band in Havana.