I don’t think you’ll hear many records this year that move effortlessly from Turkish psychedelia on one track to Tex-Mex to cumbia and other Afro-Caribbean rhythms, all set to a big, brash funk sound. So if that sounds intriguing to you, just go out and get ahold of Grupo Fantasma’s American Music: Vol. VII now.
The Austin-based group is entering its 19th year and releasing its seventh album, their first in five years. I have to confess that although I’ve been aware of them, this is the first time I’ve spent any time with their music. Now I’m wondering what too me so long? Their music is an amazing conjunto of Latin American styles, rock, funk, surf, spaghetti western and more, executed with immense vitality and no small amount of sly wit. They’re a sprawling ensemble featuring two lead singers, multiple percussionists, a big brass section, prominent electric guitar, catchy bass lines, and more influences than your average politician, plus a bunch of exciting guests who add to the hot pepper pot.
Take for instance the opening track “El Fugitivo,” which has enough horns to compete with the likes of Snarky Puppy, plus deep twang that’s got to be making Dick Dale smile from surfer’s heaven, and vocal quotes from “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly,” all set to a bouncy ska-adjacent beat.
That Turkish psych I mentioned? It comes in the third track, “LT,” which unusually for Fantasma has lyrics in English. The loping track comes on strong with funky horns (including bari sax) and Turkish-inspired fuzzed-out guitars playing in a decidedly Levantine pentatonic mode. The vocals are definitely more East L.A. than Middle East, though, its lyrics about an elusive girl who resists the singer’s kiss.
This grupo plays with genre on just about every track, though. “La Cruda” blends mariachi-type trumpet and a cumbia beat with Tex-Mex accordion with a different kind of psychedelic guitar sound and a Cuban-influenced vocal chorus. “Ausencia” among others just lays on the funky horns. I love this sound of trombone, trumpet and baritone sax wailing in harmony over a polyrhythmic base; throw in some distorted guitar licks and the amable meter is off the scale. “Hot Sauce” is another one with a cumbia-style beat, but the instrumentation is mostly stripped down until the chorus when the horns kick in over the double-entendre lyrics. The electric boogaloo of “Let Me Be” has (in another first for Fantasma) an outside lead vocalist, Tomar Williams, who also plays electric organ, and is backed by the Soul Supporters.
It’s not all fun and games, though. In addition to the requisite ballads like “Que Mas Quieres De Mi” and “Yo Quisiera,” there’s the political song “The Wall.” Yeah, that wall. With assistance from members of Ozomatli and Locos Por Juana, and mixes in some hip-hop with its hard Latin funk. According to the band, the song “questions the definition of an ‘immigrant’ and what makes one illegal,” with shout-outs to Miami, Austin, L.A., and other Southland cities. Political, yes, but musically a blast, like this whole record.
It’s just barely spring, but American Music Vol. VII sounds like a hot record for the summer.
(Blue Corn Music)