Fulano de Tal

Pepe Alva y Alma Raymi
Pa' Mostrarte Mi Amor
(Alma Raymi Music)

Over the past year, the mainstream media discovered rock en espanol, with wide-eyed items about Latin American bands appearing in Spin, Newsweek, and even USA Today. Of course, this was old news in Miami, where a rock group singing in Spanish is about as novel as a plate of rice and beans. Pepe Alva y Alma Raymi and Fulano de Tal, two leaders of the local Latin rock scene, make vibrant music that expresses the cultural dualism of their young fans.

Elsten Torres, a.k.a. Fulano, excels at unsentimental commentary on the immigrant experience, articulating the disillusion of first-generation American dreamers with throbbing guitars and rollicking percussion. There's a bit of a Latin swing to "Inquietud," but for the most part Fulano de Tal covers familiar alt-rock terrain with driving riffs, a psychedelic vibe, and manic-depressive vocals. Lest there be any doubt, the pounding rebel anthem "No Soy Gringo" makes clear that rock music is a worldwide cultural patrimony, not a yanqui franchise. These are real songs, not derivative blather. Fulano sings one song, "Complicated," in English, proving himself a pleasing vocalist in either language. The Beatles inhabit the swelling chords on "Afuera de Mi Cabeza," one of several sublime ballads.

While Fulano reinvents Latin identity in his lyrics, singer/songwriter Pepe Alva does so through the instruments and rhythms of his native Peru. Alva, age 27, has lived in Miami since he was in high school and started out playing in a hard rock band. His current group, Alma Raymi, punctuates bluesy rock rhythms with zampona (bamboo panpipes), quena (Andean flute), and charango (a small guitar). Guest musicians Jack Bluni and Wickly Nogueras add, respectively, harmonica and conga to the mix. The result is infectious folk rock rather than dense roots music. Alva's lyrical songwriting is influenced by that of Charly Garcia and other poetic pioneers of Latin American rock, and the tracks on Pa' Mostrarte Mi Amor shift between sweet ballads such as "No Se Que Decir" and whirling dance tunes, including "Mi Cholita," a crowd favorite at the band's live shows. The jaunty sound of the Andean pipes enriches the album's generally joyous tone.

Normal, Fulano de Tal's first major-label release, and Pa' Mostrarte Mi Amor, Pepe Alva's first full-length album, are notable examples of vital made-in-Miami music that tends to remain underground while the same old commercial Latin dreck rises to the top. Apparently local Spanish radio stations still haven't realized that rock en espanol is the next big thing.

-- Judy Cantor

Paul Simon
Songs from The Capeman
(Warner Bros. Records)

Forget Happy Days. Rock and roll and doo-wop pounded through the commercial and racial barriers of the Fifties because turmoil churned beneath America's placid surface. Racism, drugs, unemployment, and juvenile gangs plagued the life of urban teens as much as they do today, and that's the grist for Paul Simon's musical play, The Capeman.

With angelic doo-wop and Puerto Rican salsa as the primary colors, Simon paints a compelling musical picture of Salvador Agron, a Puerto Rican native who, at age sixteen, stabbed two white New York teens to death in a gang rumble. Lucy and Desi may have been the decade's favorite couple, but their interethnic romance must have seemed a fantasy on the streets of New York where Puerto Rican, black, and white gangs warred with each other. Agron ran with a gang called the Vampires and wore a cape as part of his hip wardrobe, which made it easy to identify him after the murders. Playing the role to the hilt, Agron showed no remorse after being captured. Sound bites (included on the album) of his interviews with Gabe Pressman, a bulldog New York TV reporter, show two worlds colliding. Agron flippantly refused to take Pressman's questions seriously, which made him the essence of evil to mainstream viewers. In the opening song, "Adiós Hermanos," Simon sums up the situation: "Well, the Spanish boys had their day in court/And now it was time for some fuckin' law and order." Agron was sentenced to death, the youngest person ever condemned in the Empire State, but Gov. Nelson Rockefeller commuted the sentence to life.

Simon's songs are arranged in a cycle that flashes back to Agron's life before the fatal rumble and then moves on to the relationships that develop after Rockefeller's act of mercy. "Killer Wants to Go to College" depicts Agron as a model prisoner seeking an education. In "Time Is an Ocean," Agron reflects on how becoming a writer saved his sanity in prison. He was released in 1979 and, according to Simon, was never again involved in violence (he died in 1986). Simon's lyrical reach occasionally exceeds his grasp here, and it takes a while to accept his vocal portrayal of Agron. But Capeman's authentic doo-wop and Latin fusion more than compensate for any awkward moments.

The new album feels like the capper in a trilogy that began with Graceland and continued with The Rhythm of the Saints, positioning Simon as a latter-day George Gershwin, cribbing musical styles from different places and eras. The difference between Gershwin and Simon is that, despite claims to the contrary, Simon credits his collaborators and inspirations; Gershwin left them unidentified. Nostalgia notwithstanding, Simon's last three albums beat anything he produced with Art Garfunkel. Songs from The Capeman confirms that he is one of the few baby-boomer musical icons to have actually improved with age.

-- Salvatore Caputo

Don't Check Me with No Lightweight Stuff (1972-1975)
(Blood & Fire)

In the late Sixties, when he was pinching the underside of 30 years old, Roy Reid, a.k.a. I-Roy, gave up his job as an accountant for the Jamaican government in order to enter the country's burgeoning DJ scene. It was a good move: By the time he recorded the first singles on this inspired compilation, he had already begun to exhibit a control and consistency that almost matched that of the early-Seventies James Brown. I-Roy's sound during this period was as spare as Brown's, too: His blunt, good-natured toasting forged ahead over one loud, forceful rhythm section after another. Later he softened up: Presenting I-Roy/Hell and Sorrow, a two-CD set on the Trojan label, collects finely wrought pop replete with horns and guitar hooks that are all but absent here. No Lightweight Stuff delivers I-Roy's propulsive essence with a force that's appropriate to a man busting out of bureaucracy.

-- John Young

Emerson, Lake and Palmer
Live on the King Biscuit Flower Hour
(King Biscuit Flower Hour Records)

Live in Nottingham

Beavis and Butt-head are out to pasture now, but picture them, if you will, listening to these CDs and saying, "This sucks." Now let me say it: This sucks. Emerson, Lake and Palmer, born from the ashes of decent bands like King Crimson and Nice in the early Seventies and touted as one of the first British prog-rock supergroups, plagued the airwaves twenty-odd years ago with space-rock standards like "Lucky Man" and "Karn Evil #9." At the time, the trio was moderately interesting for its use of synthesizers in a high-concept format. This was epic rock, stuff you listened to while reclining in the beanbag chair and torching up a fat one, or reading The Lord of the Rings, or, God help us, playing Dungeons and Dragons. There's no point in it now. Synths suck, and bombast sucks even more; ELP was an aficionado of both.

Most of the songs collected here are from a 1977 performance, when ELP was already pretty stale. The set opens with a febrile version of the "Peter Gunn Theme" and heads downhill fast. There's a shameful rendition of Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" in which Keith Emerson shows just how fast he can play the piano; standbys such as "Hoedown" are treated with blaring synths that sound like mice struggling in glue traps. Quick, somebody hit these guys on the head with a shoe.

The early Eighties success of Asia (featuring Carl Palmer on drums) is even harder to explain. All I can think of is that people listened to Billy Squier and Aldo Nova back then too. Live in Nottingham commemorates a show in 1990, years after guitarist Steve Howe had flown the coop. Pat Thrall takes over lead guitar, but who cares? This duck still won't quack. The set is 61 minutes of torture, alleviated only occasionally by memories (if you're my age) of riding around in your friend's Camaro drinking cheap beer, singing along to "Heat of the Moment" and wondering, even at the time, "Why am I singing this crap?" Let the dead bury the dead. Let the good British earth reclaim her own.

-- Keith Lee Morris

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Judy Cantor
Salvatore Caputo
Keith Lee Morris
John Young