The septet from Los Angles known as Ozomatli creates such engaging and energetic shows, studio albums can be anti-climatic. Fortunately, their fifth platter Fire Away begins like a Latin house party spilling into the street. “Are You Ready?” is an upbeat barrage of percussion and brass, blending a mariachi and norteno vibe. The revelry abates only when cranky neighbors call to complain (represented by deep bass breakdowns).
Car keys jingle and a voice speaks from the radio. This time, the driver isn’t listening to “Detroit Rock City”, the track is “Cabalitio” and the road trip is along the Mexican border. A tuba provides the bass line for this fast paced salsafied-polka-romp.
“Gay Vatos In Love” is the swinging, horn enhanced, fifties-rock inspired song Los Lobos didn’t have the guts (or inclination) to write. Although catchy, the track remains memorable due to its subject matter. “Gaby and Mando walking through the park / Looking for love in protection of the dark / Club Cobra, a temple in the night / The more I hear of Morrissey, the more I feel alright.“
Perhaps Fire Away‘s producer Tony Berg (Bruce Hornsby, Aimee Mann) advised the group to indulge in pop explorations. The Jack Johnson-ish “It’s Only Paper” follows all the generic rules: bouncy beat, midway rap interlude, laid back vocal delivery, pop melody, and lite lyrics, “They say that money makes you change / What a funny thing to say / Only thing money gives is a choice / No one ever found joy from paper by itself / It’s the choices that you make / What you do.”
The group further exposes their soft, singer/songwriter underbelly on two ballads, “It’s Only Time” and “Love Comes Down.” These stripped down, saccharine-soaked-love songs slow down the party and could lead to an invitation to join Sarah McLachlan on the Lilith Fair tour. On “Elysian Persuasion,” canned R&B beats compete with overwrought vocals, all smothered in a Velveeta production. Had Michael Jackson passed a sub-par dance track to his sister Janet who further botched it before pawning it off on Frankie Goes to Hollywood who in turn failed to relax on the track then shelved it for 30 years, it still would have sounded better than “Elysian Persuasion”.
Ozomatli is known for mashing together genres: rock, hip-hop, salsa, funk and soul, etc. But on Fire Away their explorations into pop lack the inventiveness that is their best characteristic. On the album’s more energetic tracks (“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” “Malagasy Shock”), Berg gets credit for capturing on record the heretofore-illusive live concert energy of the group. But he looses points for allowing the band to go so soft on other tracks. Ozomatli provides a valued and singular Latino-flavored, Los Angeles soundtrack. Hopefully in the future, they’ll leave the bubblegum to pop stars.