Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rubén Blades [extended]

  • Maestra Vida: Primera Parte [Fania, 1980] B
  • Maestra Vida: Segunda Parte [Fania, 1980] B
  • Buscando America [Elektra, 1984] A-
  • Escenas [Elektra, 1985] A-
  • Agua de Luna [Elektra, 1987] B
  • Nothing but the Truth [Elektra, 1988] B
  • Antecedente [Elektra, 1988] B+

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Maestra Vida: Primera Parte [Fania, 1980]
Willie Colon's vocalist has created a salsa album so artistically ambitious that it brooks no comparison--a music drama complete with synopsis and recorded dialogue that purports to sum up half a century of NuYorican struggle. As a non-Spanish-speaker with access to a privately provided trot, I'm impressed with his reach, his grasp, and his acting ability, but as a veteran of rock opera I feel constrained to note that these things rarely work as planned even when the audience knows the language. Since I'm no salsa expert, I can only observe that both the studied casualness of the production style--songs over backtalk, impromptu-sounding chorus--and the musical-comedy overture seem more effective dramatically than musically. Still, the context helps makes salsa accessible to the nonexpert. And it's possible Blades isn't just smarter than the Neon Philharmonic--he could be smarter than, gosh, Pete Townshend himself. B

Maestra Vida: Segunda Parte [Fania, 1980]
On a major label, this would have been disc two of a double-LP, relieving us of another overture. But the rock world rarely produces a song as physically beautiful (or solicitously observed) as "Carmelo, Después (El Viejo DaSilva)." Too many violins and not enough clave. But his heart and his head are in the right place. B

Rubén Blades y Seis del Solar: Buscando America [Elektra, 1984]
The claim that only racism and lousy promotion denied Blades's Maestra Vida diptych the attention this major label debut has received is half truism and half one-upping guff. Nor do I miss the horns that helped make Siembra, his most renowned Willie Colon collaboration, an international phenomenon. The seven-man rhythm section he sings with here encourages conversational intimacy and renders irrelevant the high romanticism classic soneros drown in and Blades doesn't have the voice for. It also accents the narrative details which Blades the writer provides in such abundance. Nor must you know Spanish (or follow the crib sheet) to enjoy his rhythmic, melodic, and dramatic subtleties--they're right there in the music. Which vagues out only once--behind the pious generalities of the eight-minute title track. A-

Rubén Blades y Seis del Solar: Escenas [Elektra, 1985]
From loud syndrums to choked-up harmonies to generalized lyric, the Linda Ronstadt duet points up the risk Blades runs of falling into a modernist version of salsa's romantic overstatement. But the risk has a payback--whether he's synthing up la melodia or cataloguing international freedom fighters, his ability to skip along the shores of schlock without ruining his best pair of shoes helps distinguish him from middlebrow popularizers. It might even be what makes "The Song of the End of the World" a gleeful blowout rather than some stupid satire. A-

Rubén Blades y Seis del Solar: Agua de Luna [Elektra, 1987]
Establishing his progressive credentials and his rock credentials simultaneously, Blades commits two progressive rock errors, relying on synthesizers for texture and literature for aesthetic complexity. It's a measure of his gift and his freedom from pretension that between his supple voice and even suppler groove he induces you to listen to the damn synths--and that the words sound (and translate) like they make sense until you bear down line by line. As I bet Garcia Márquez knows, this kind of compression isn't realistic or magical, much less both. It's an impressionistic code. B

Nothing but the Truth [Elektra, 1988]
Although familiarity has tempered my dismay, my first response to Blades's assault on Anglophonia was embarrassment--just what WEA needed, another Jackson Browne album. Admittedly, it's a pretty good Jackson Browne album, with various class acts (Uncle Lou, Elvis C., Sting, and studio luminaries) pitching in for their (and my) favorite Hispanic liberal. When I suppress my corn immunity I'm moved by the AIDS song, the homeless song, and the barrio song. And except for Sting's contribution, I'm impressed by the rest--literate lyrics about Latin America, feckless idealism, and feckless love are never easy to come by. But that doesn't mean they're easy to bring off, and deprived of Seis del Solar's rolling undercurrents Blades is forced to serve them up straight, a skill he hasn't practiced like he has his English. Not that practice would make perfect--cf. Jackson Browne. B

Rubén Blades y Seis del Solar: Antecedente [Elektra, 1988]
Coming off a failed literary album and a failed rock album, Blades augments a revamped, renamed Seis del Solar with salsa trombones and begets a dance album for the people of Panama. Which kind of leaves his friends from non-Latino cultures in the lurch--is this the "real" salsa record of our crossover dreams? Beats me. The (translated) lyrics are intelligently romantic (with an Indian smuggler smuggled in), and after the usual unusual effort, I can report that the tunes are solid, the grooves Latino, and the vocals proof of a major pop intelligence--he's revamped the floridity of an entire tradition in the image of his own physical limitations. Can you dance to it? Better than me, I'm sure. B+