More fun from Mexico City: loosely bound by two very different musical traditions — indigenous folk and the fading influence of imported new wave (mostly of the Police, but also Duran Duran, U2 and the Cure) — Caifanes produces high-gloss pop, mixing stylistic metaphors and eras into a modern blend that can lean toward sodden sentimentality (“Amarrate a una Escoba y Vuela Lejos,” on El Diablito) at one end and rousing guitar-rock (“La Vida No Es Eterna,” a CD bonus track on the same album) at the other, with an early predilection for dramatic synth-pop (Caifanes’ “Cuentame Tu Vida”) and even glitzed-up cumbia (the debut’s “La Negra Tomasa,” Caifanes’ first big hit) on either side. If the group’s albums don’t push any international envelopes, the songs (written by singer/guitarist Saúl Hernandez) speak powerfully to Mexican youth via dramatically impressionist lyrics about souls, love, alienation and metaphysical transformations.
The first album is the most new wavey (“Perdi Mi Ojo de Venado” lodges your basic bored-teenagers complaint); the phantoms of Gary Numan and Nick Rhodes alternately operate the keyboards as Hernandez explores the pompous reaches of his sturdy baritone. The substantially improved El Diablito refines Caifanes’ sound with more sophisticated instrumental textures and less stylistic meandering. “Detras de Ti” slides through its minor key and rhythmic permutations with smooth confidence (the Cars reborn as a Latin ska group?), while “Antes de Que Nos Olviden” gathers a potent atmosphere around Alejandro Marcovich’s tensely pinging guitar nibbles before releasing a dreamy chorus and then finding room for a wiggly fretless bass solo by Sabo Romo.
Adrian Belew, who produced El Silencio (is there a theme here? Phil Manzanera, another adventurous guitar wanger from way back, produced Brazil’s Paralamas do Sucesso) in Wisconsin, coaxed edgier rock and a smart stylistic upgrade out of Caifanes. “Nubes” integrates Latin percussion and horns for a salsa inflection; “Piedra” floats off on a raft of MIDI tubas and trumpets; “No Dejes Que…” modernizes the Tin Pan pop of bands like Haircut 100 with glorious results, and “Debajo de Tu Piel” strikes a balance between the Beatles and David Bowie. Not surprisingly, El Silencio is a night of a thousand guitar sounds, but the songwriting and arrangements are just as fascinating.
Warren Zevon/Toto regular Greg Ladanyi co-produced El Nervio del Volcan, which nonetheless leaves the blocks accompanied by a very Belew-like guitar figure in “Afuera,” a song drawn from Argentinian and Bolivian musics. Reduced to a trio (listing the album’s bassist and keyboard player as guests), Caifanes retrenches from the previous record’s advances a bit. Without settling for a single rock idiom, the album evinces a more practical measure of ambition. Other than the clattery distortions of “Hasta Que Dejes de Respirar” and the string-laden acoustic dalliance of “Ayer Me Dijo un Ave,” Caifanes rocks with focused power at a fairly consistent and effective dynamic level. At the band’s most surreal, “Quisera Ser Alcohol” (“I Wish I Was Alcohol”) asserts the desire to “evaporate inside you/And learn what passion means.”