Snap, Crackle, and Power Pop

As the Derek Cintron Band hits the final note of its deceptively buoyant "Song for Nothing," most excellent squeals and screams and whoops erupt from the dozen or so votaries, more than half of them young women, sitting at the large table directly in front of the Churchill's Hideaway stage. The most vocal of a proverbial small but enthusiastic crowd, they carry on in this raucous fashion for a full 45 seconds, causing Cintron, standing stage center, to grin and say kiddingly, as he motions to the revelers with both hands, "It's just like Cheap Trick Live at Budokan here." Shirt completely unbuttoned, black hair dotted with cream-colored beads where it hangs well below his shoulders, Cintron takes a step back, and then he and his band launch into the gamboling "Laughing Out Loud," a smile still playing across his face, because while he knows full well that those dames up front do like his songs a lot, he also understands that they appreciate the messenger's, you know, pulchritude.

Name-checking power-pop gurus Cheap Trick is more appropriate than Cintron probably intended, going far beyond his fans' mini-duplication of the peals of adoration heard on Live at Budokan, because perhaps more than anyone else on the local scene (with the possible exception of the Goods), Cintron has tapped into the sacred essence of the rock and roll hook as blueprinted by Cheap Trick at its late-Seventies In Color/Heaven Tonight peak. Those hooks abound on Mantra, the relentlessly satisfying nine-song CD Cintron released late this past summer. Recorded between November 1994 and March 1995 at his Miami Lakes home and at the home of his friend/engineer Ryan Sambrook, Mantra brims with an unmistakable instrumental beatitude, particularly on its first three cuts, "Waiting in the Wings," "Goodtime Girls" (the best song that Marshall Crenshaw never wrote), and "Out of My Head."

No mere compendium of streamlined melodies and ear-candy choruses, Mantra maintains a sonic intensity throughout with songs of tension and release: the twofer "Simple Truths/Epiloque," with its elegant instrumental outro; the affecting "Zen and the Art of Heartache"; and the almost stately, album-closing "Life Goes On," with its repeated refrain, "Everything just seems to fade away," heard in overdubbed rounds. Cintron wrote, arranged, and produced the album himself, sang all the vocals, and played all the instruments -- guitars, basses, drums, keyboards, and percussion -- carrying on the smart-pop ethos explored previously by countless solo guys bent on doing everything themselves, including Kurt Ralske (Ultra Vivid Scene), Michael Ivey (Basehead), former Replacements drummer Chris Mars, and pre-Wings Paul McCartney. (However, if you're in search of a handy-dandy reference point, Mantra recalls Todd Rundgren's great early-Seventies records Runt, The Ballad of Todd Rundgren, and Something/Anything?)

Even though Mantra represents the first official release by the 25-year-old Miami native -- well, okay, Cintron moved here from Puerto Rico with his family when he was three years old -- he has been making solo recordings at home on a four-track machine since the late Eighties. "Every year I would try to put out an album," he notes. "I made one in '88, '89, '90, and '92. I started one in '93, but never finished the mixing. All very raw stuff in terms of quality. I didn't release any of them because they weren't of good enough quality sonically." So he simply dubbed cassettes of these "albums" and gave them to friends.

Mantra began much the same way, with Cintron laying down drum tracks on his four-track in one day: "The biggest homemade rig job you can possibly imagine," he laughs. Then Sambrook stepped in to help, and over the course of 90 to 100 hours, in fits and starts -- an hour and a half here, three hours there -- the two of them recorded and mixed Mantra. It hit local shops (Spec's, Blue Note, Uncle Sam's, Y&T) last September.

"The way I compile albums is I'll write constantly over however many months, and then I'll go back and decide which songs sound the very best," Cintron says. "Then I try to pick a theme or a unifying idea either musically or lyrically or both, instead of picking all my favorite songs at that time. I want my records to work like one of my favorite childhood albums -- Pink Floyd's The Wall or Rush's Moving Pictures -- where everything flows, and the album takes you on a ride. You can listen to the songs individually, but when you want to sit down and listen to the whole 40 minutes, it's great nonstop. That's what I wanted to do. Everything feels like it should be on there."

Certainly that cohesiveness, that flow, permeates Mantra. Cintron chose mostly songs he'd written in 1993, plus a few from '94, although the chugging "Toys for Sale" (whose lyrics he rescued from an old creative-writing-class poetry assignment) dates from '91, and the elegiac "Life Goes On" and ringing "Song for Nothing" date from way back in '89. He has dedicated the album to his father Luis, who died following a long illness shortly after the songs were recorded. "He did get to hear the album, which was great, and I was happy about that," Cintron relates. "But he did not get to see its release."

His father's illness was merely one dispiriting element among many that tugged at Cintron as he put together Mantra. "A million bad things were happening at once at that time in my life," he recalls. "It's safe to say that 1994 was the worst year ever in my life." He couldn't find work. He'd been through a breakup. His grandfather had just died. "Lyrically, the theme is about strength, in a sense," he explains. "This is definitely an exercise in perseverance. I would sit back and listen to these songs after they were recorded, and it would clear my mind. I would play the same songs over and over. It became like a mantra for me. It was like something I would say over and over to strengthen myself."

Something else was quietly gnawing at Cintron, too. His long-time band, local hard rockers Vandal, for whom he had played drums since 1990, was beginning to unravel. According to Cintron, throughout the past year, following the release of Vandal's 1994 album Julian Day, band members started to disagree about the group's direction. Not musical differences, Cintron points out, because, as he puts it, "they'd been there since the band's inception. I knew when I joined that stylistically we were real different. That was the nature of the band." Rather, it was business matters, frequently a divisive force within bands, that vexed Vandal, ultimately leading to its demise at the end of the past year, right around the same time Cintron began playing out with his own band (Cintron on guitar/lead vocals, Roman Fernandez on bass, Scott Graubart on drums, and Vandal's Tony Medina, a Cintron chum since they were kids, on lead guitar/backing vocals).

But he insists the virtually simultaneous dissolution of Vandal and debut of his own band were strictly coincidental, the latter not causing the former. "No, it was business decisions," Cintron emphasizes, choosing his words carefully in an effort to account for his old band's splitup. "What direction we should follow to promote the band, those kinds of things. And after a while it became impossible to hold things together."

Now Cintron concentrates on his own band full-time. Good thing, too, because Mantra has caused something of a minor roar, winning a 1995 Jammie Award (from Jam magazine) as Best Independent Release (South Region) in early March. Meanwhile his band performs locally with increasing frequency, and they're writing new material together, recently recording a three-song demo that augments Cintron's already substantial backlog of pre-Mantra stuff: "I have so much material I've written on my own that I want to put out." But he's quick to add that he has no immediate plans to record a followup, preferring instead to try to get the word out about Mantra. "I've finally released something that I've done by myself," Cintron says, beaming his thousand-kilowatt smile, "and I can't tell you how happy that makes me. It's almost like a rebirth or a new beginning. And I like beginnings, because that's the most exciting time."

The Derek Cintron Band performs with the Dan Whitley Band and the Inside on Friday, April 19, at Cheers, 2490 SW 17th Ave; 857-0041. Showtime is 9:00. Admission is $5.

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Michael Yockel