Time on His Side

Luis Enrique finally gets his live sound on tape

A leisurely pace allowed the musicians to re-create the collaborative magic of a spontaneous jam to a certain extent, and let the arrangements follow the percussion. “It's so fun,” smiles the producer, “because it was so unexpected. Imagine playing congas on a song that is not arranged. And as Omar plays bass, he's making the arrangement. And as Michel is playing piano, he is making the arrangement. I wouldn't trade that for anything in the world. The disc seems like a live show, but with a sound quality much better than playing a show.”

This form of organic arrangement pays off on Enrique's labor of love, helped out in no small part by the prodigious talent of the musicians and, for the Nostalgia crew, the live grind of their night jobs. Not surprisingly, given the high representation of Cubans who emigrated here in the Nineties, the aggressive percussion and horns of contemporary island music give an edge that even Enrique's most loving conga runs never approached in his more romantic phase. “Alma Rosa” (“Rose-Colored Soul”), in both the salsa and ballad forms bears a strong influence from Cuban neotroubadours. And the effect of a bunch of guys hanging out for months on end contributed some delightfully appropriate idiosyncrasies, such as the hula-keyboard flourish that opens the first single “Qué Se Yo?” (“What Do I Know?).

Comparisons with Cuban singer-songwriters such as Amaury Gutierrez and David Torrens, however, heighten the recording's shortcomings. If the instrumentation is inventive and impeccably executed, Enrique's success in keeping up as a vocalist is less consistent. The untrained singer has a smooth-as-silk midrange and a lovely falsetto, but getting from point A to point B sometimes can be a strain. In the ballad “Anonimo” (“Anonymous”), arranged with help by Raul del Sol, Enrique drowns himself in his lower depths, draining the power from his voice.

The lyrics throughout, however heartfelt, lack the clever poetic concepts typical not only of the neotroubadours but of the great boleros with which Enrique got his start. One example of metaphor run wild is “Planting a Flag,” in which the singer confesses to a litany of unrelated desires: “I want to be the pages of your newspaper/I want to be every heartbeat/ Maybe your language or your alphabet/To be the owner of your heart/I would go to war for you” -- and on and on. It's a pity, with Hernandez's funky bass line and Fragoso's slinky piano vamp, to have so little to hang on to here in verse.

Enrique, ironically, is at his weakest as a vocalist because he is pushing himself on this project in every way. He has not shied away from any risks. As a producer, arranger, and instrumentalist, his daring is to be applauded. “I sweated,” he complains lovingly of the effort. “I fought with it. I hated it. I felt all kinds of emotion. Some days we couldn't even look at each other, but in the end it was worth it. I wanted to protect my songs. Most of all I wanted to get my point across on what my music is supposed to be about. And we made it. We made it together.”

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