As soon as we get there, we'll call Emilio/I have a friend who's a friend of a friend/With a direct line to the heaven of so many stars/After that I'll be running here and there/With Paulina Rubio and Alejandro Sanz/Relax, honey, Paulina's just a friend. Jorge Villamizar swears it's true. Just like he sings in the opening track to Caraluna, the Colombian frontman for Bacilos says that when he arrived in South Florida, as a student at the University of Miami, the first thing he did was call impresario Emilio Estefan, Jr. "He received me," Villamizar recalls. "We never met again."
But if Villamizar's thoughtful songwriting and understated charm failed to impress the godfather of Latin pop -- and if he's yet to get friendly with Mexican bombshell Paulina -- his band has in fact been opening stadium shows around the world for ultrasensitive crooner Alejandro Sanz. Asked to name a musical highlight from the new album, Villamizar turns to his famous new pal. "Two nights ago I was having drinks with Alejandro Sanz," he says, as if he still can't quite believe he can utter such a sentence, "and he said he wished he had written some of my songs." Practically blushing now, Villamizar adds, "And he said he knows I wish I had written some of his."
Sanz's taste, in this case, is quite good. "He likes 'Nada Especial,'" reports Villamizar. "Nothing Special" is typical Bacilos: a tropical-tinged "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" that meditates on the aimlessness of a life anesthetized by CNN on a planet running to ecological ruin. In the end/I'm turning into an animal/Without a dream or a plan. What is in fact so special about Villamizar's songwriting, beyond the requisite catchy choruses and zippy melodies, is that he actually has something to say.
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There is no shortage of love songs here, the juice that fuels the Latin pop machine, but not a single one resorts to the worn-out banalities passed off as "universals." There is instead at various moments a consideration of what it means to restrain feelings, memories of a lover in the boredom of her daily routine, descriptions of deepening sexual acquaintance. As the first single, the title track is the most commercial offering, a muted cumbia with guitar arpeggios borrowed from Haitian compas ("That's the sound of Miami, too," Villamizar explains) that finds a lost lover in the face of the moon and spume of the sea. Yet there is also a whimsical tale of living in a poorly maintained apartment complex and a rap lament on the cost of maintaining a hot mami on Miami Beach.
Almost all of the songs on Caraluna, as on the previous Bacilos, were written before the group had any realistic commercial aspirations: These are songs meant to work out troubling emotions or to entertain friends at local live shows. The success of Bacilos induced the record label to spring for top tropical producer Sergio George and Shakira's Spanish-language hitmaker Luis Fernando Ochoa for the group's sophomore outing. "I think it's a better album," Villamizar assesses. "You take risks doing something more -- commercial is the word. If it's commercial, whatever."
"It's good to have another pair of ears that haven't been together with us for the last six years," adds Brazilian bassist Andre Lopes. "They would say, 'Let's try an electric guitar in this chorus' or maybe speed up a song a little bit, or slow it down. Little things that maybe we had tried already but didn't like, and they would insist. In the end it sounded good."
Where Ochoa delivers a richer version of the essentially acoustic sound on Bacilos, George takes the trio (rounded out by percussionist José Javier Freire) into new territory, introducing a dance groove and a guest appearance by meren-hip-hop group Fulanito. "It really surprised me how much he believes in first takes," observes Lopes. "His music is elaborated, but he works around what you do in the first three takes." With the help of George and Ochoa, the band attempted as much as possible to capture a live vibe by recording as a group in the studio, rather than laying tracks separately and splicing later. "If you start doing and doing and doing it, what's the difference between you and one of these fabricated artists?" Lopes asks.