When hardcore-rock bands go acoustic, the result usually falls somewhere between the cheesiness of hair-metal love ballads — Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” — and the autotune-free whining of unplugged frontmen — Saosin’s “Seven Years (acoustic).” But when LA-based rockers The Bronx decided to make an acoustic album, instead of converting their high-energy jams into listless covers, they channeled the sound they experienced as native Angelenos into original mariachi songs and created a Mexican alter ego that has taken a course all its own.
The Bronx has been an integral part of LA’s music scene since 2003’s self-titled album introduced a heart-thumping blend of East Coast hardcore and California garage punk that defies genre labels. Unlike their contemporaries, The Bronx has little interest in financial gain, image or overproduced recording techniques, and despite signing with Island/Def Jam, their second self-titled album was released through their own label, White Drugs. In 2007, after countless international tours and shows in venues from bars to barns, The Bronx announced plans for two upcoming albums.
The first, another self-titled recording, was released in November of last year and found the heavy-rock five piece giving its vicious riffs more classic rock texture. The second, a self-described mariachi album, was slightly more ambitious. While playing shows in cities around the world, The Bronx became Mariachi el Bronx, turning their respect for the oomping soundtrack of LA’s ethnic neighborhoods into their own English-language mariachi songs. Once back home, the non-Hispanic members of The Bronx added traditional Mexican instruments and new members to play them — including the son of David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. The band bought authentic black velvet mariachi outfits and debuted the results of the cultural mixture to unsuspecting fans at Bronx shows.
Finally, after a year and a half of showing off, Mariachi el Bronx’s debut album, el Bronx, finally hits record stores today, showcasing a hybrid sound that aligns itself with our multi-cultural megalopolis as much as with our neighbors to the south.
Trying to make a regional Mexican album while keeping cred as a hardcore band is a feat in and of itself, but Mariachi el Bronx prove its true interest in the Mexican music that swirled around the band members growing up in Los Angeles. They created an album that captures the essence of Chicano life near the border without offending citizens on either side. Although its concept plays off the different types of Hispanic music present in LA, el Bronx is, compositionally, a rock album. The tempo and structure of each song is the same as other high-energy Bronx songs, but with vihuelas replacing electric guitars and rock riffs masterfully replaced with authentic Mexican sons — or sounds.
Opening song “Cell Mates” characterizes the album, ripping in with fanfare trumpets and intense strums of an acoustic guitar that, for an instant, could be heard during a walk down Olvera Street. But then singer Matt Caughthran comes in with melodic English-language lyrics and instantly turns what could have been a disastrous, tacky mariachi attempt into a complex, catchy and compelling piece that transmits a message of love and hope. Other regional Mexican music shines through as well, like the jarocho style of Veracruz found in “Quinceanera” or the simple guitar-only essence of bolero in “Sleepwalking.”
The concept behind Mariachi el Bronx is brilliant. The album infuses acoustic Bronx-punk with a variety of traditional Mexican sounds like an Echo Park sidestreet. The mix is so right-on, the music might as well be blaring from the speakers of a Hispanic neighbor’s birthday party. Where el Bronx, falters, however, is in its themes. Although its beats and riffs are whitewashed to some degree, the overly dramatic themes of traditional Spanish-language songs remain throughout. Instead of trying to portray a true taste of life around the Mexican-American border, Mariachi el Bronx falls victim to extreme romantic notions, which detracts from its musical message. Definitely worth listening to, but not to be taken seriously, el Bronx is a product of its creators’ upbringing in an increasingly mixed-up world.