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Yerba Buena - Island Life

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Artist: Yerba Buena

Album: Island Life

Label: Razor and Tie

Review date: Aug. 16, 2005

If it's agreed the pope spanks it in the woods, then perhaps a more relevant rhetorical question might be, “if an album starts with a skit, is it going to be any good?” Somewhere between Redman's Whut Thee Album and Dre's The Chronic (yep, that was 13 years ago) the skit achieved all it could and began a quick slide into pure fillerdom. Perhaps Yerba Buena has a reason for beginning its new album Island Life with a skit, but the odd Indian accent (proving that vague sexist taunts aren't any funnier when spoken by the “ingreesh”-challenged), fake ocean sounds and a diluted Jimmy Cliff imitation is enough to discourage listeners from listening any further.

Moments from exhausting the capital they've gained through well-received live shows and a promising debut album, however, Yerba Buena pulls Island Life back on track with the thundering, cumbia-flavored jaunt “El Burrito,” propelled by the husky delivery of vocalist Cucu Diamantes and a rowdy barroom crowd of background singers. In fact, nearly every song on Island Life makes good use of cameos and guests, including everyone from John Leguizamo (as a wannabe player during the intro of “Sugar Daddy,” the album's most likely candidate for a single), ’60s Latin soul pioneer Joe Bataan, members of Orishas, Gogol Bordello, and, in a tasteless use of sampling passed off as collaboration, Celia Cruz (who died two years before the album's release... the sample in question is Cruz' trademark “azucar!” or “sugar!”).

A few of the guest spots showcase experts from non-Caribbean genres standing in as authenticity while Yerba Buena delivers pale facsimiles of sounds they haven't mastered and don't seem to represent, like the rumba-fied flamenco of “Corazon Bandolero.” Despite some inspired interplay between modern flamenco legend Diego “El Cigala” and Yerba Buena's Diamantes, one might otherwise never guess this is the same “El Cigala” and his crew of Spanish pirates that appeared in the stunning Calle 54 and later recorded with Jerry Gonzalez. Bandleader Andres Levin at times cedes so much ground to the disco-inflected ensemble sound of the group that the myriad Afro-Latin rhythms and melodies in Yerba Buena's vocabulary are relegated to the back of the mix by multi-tracked guitar (kind of like Daniel Lanois in Rio during Carnival) and the occasional arena-rock drum kit. Levin's piles of dub effects and Reggaeton at times seem like a hedge to keep Yerba Buena in the frat circuit just in case their ambitious fusioneering doesn't work out.

When Levin and company manage to break away from the Captain Morgan advertisement that seems to guide their act, bright moments occur. Bata drums and Yoruba chants permeate a few songs. Tight brass arrangements pop out of nowhere to rescue the occasional foundering groove. On “Fever,” the rhythm section conjures a twisted afrobeat in 6/8 time to modernize the spiritual music of much of the Caribbean, and Dead Prez's M1 tramples the beat with a transcendent love poem in a meter that would leave gangster rappers and crunk emcees in a cloud of their own smoke. The album's most overtly political track, “Bla Bla Bla,” peppers its mambo and afrobeat sandwich with deep bass zen by national treasure Andy Gonzalez and classic bits by the comedian who lives at the White House (including his hit “there are rumors on the internets” dropped into the mix at the tail end of a chorus reminding him that “what you're talking about is all bullshit coming out of your mouth.”) When the band's done with El Presidente, they spend a few measures poking fun at a record exec with better than expected results.

The women of Yerba Buena – Diamantes as well as Xiomara Laugart – bring strength and sexiness to songs that would otherwise be lost causes. They exude a confidence that recalls great Cuban soneras like the aforementioned Cruz and even Albita Rodriguez, adding an undeniable authenticity with throaty dares and sassy chanting. Even when the group’s focus seems to drift some from their natural, urban Latin flair, Diamantes and Laugart pull the whole thing together.

By Andy Freivogel

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