Singing in tongues

Words differ, but Cafe Tacuba's expansive rock translates

Critics love Café Tacuba, and not without good reason. The Mexican rock quartet's songs are built on strong melodic hooks, girded by an expansive musical scope that can encompass the ragged edges of punk, the elliptical curves of electronic music (one marketing wag even — incorrectly — labeled 2003's Cuatro Caminos (Four Roads) as the Hispanic equivalent to Radiohead's Kid A) and various other cultural touchstones, from traditional Spanish music to funk and ska. Plus, the band sings in Spanish, doesn't use a drummer and has opened for Beck — exactly the right buttons to provoke Pavlovian responses in most critics.

But if Cafe Tacuba's music resonates in the ears of American media types, that acclaim has yet to translate into widespread Anglo awareness. "We are very aware that the critics know what Cafe Tacuba does," acknowledges bassist Enrique "Quique" Rangel, before adding, "I don't know if that translates to the audience at this time."

Certainly, the quartet — Rangel, his guitarist brother Joselo, keyboardist Emmanuel Del Real and singer Ruben Albarrán — enjoys a kind of home-field advantage in cities with strong Latin-American populations, and that critical support may be a factor in larger urban areas known for their musical open-mindedness.

"When we come to the States, the Latin-American audience is always there, and it's growing," says Rangel. "And there are some cities where the interest from the Anglo people is much bigger. California, San Francisco, New York; [you get] a wider range of people who come to our shows."

Nonetheless, the reality for most acts grouped under the rock en Español umbrella is that their determination to create music on their own terms, in their own tongue, will keep some people away. For Rangel, it's the same old song.

"I believe for the regular Anglo audience, the language is still a barrier," says Rangel admittedly. "[With us] singing in Spanish, it's difficult for them to approach [us]." But, he continues, "It wouldn't be very honest to express our ideas, our feelings, in a language that we don't feel very comfortable using. And certainly we wouldn't do it [just] for economical reasons."

Most Español groups view the language barrier less as an obstacle than as a challenge to let the music speak for itself. After all, these bands perform in a musical language developed on American shores; it's only reasonable to expect English-speaking audiences to meet them halfway. And Cafe Tacuba stands perhaps the best chance of all such acts to cross that verbal divide — especially with Cuatro Caminos, its most accessible album since the self-titled 1992 debut. Caminos is an unashamed pop-rock affair: the opening "Cero y Uno" is a head-bobbing, mid-tempo rocker, which leads into the rootsy dance workout "Eo," a busily propulsive ode to a gifted soundman; elsewhere, "Recuerdo Prestado" favorably echoes the strident bop of the Clash.

After taking 2001 off to recharge its batteries, the band "needed that rush of adrenaline," says Rangel of the decision to pursue a relatively mainstream rock sound. To that end, the group brought in guest drummers Victor Indrizzo and R.E.M.'s Joey Waronker to "add energy to the recordings, since all our work has been done with drum machines and electronic sequencers. Which is part of the concept of the Tacuba band; the mix between different kinds of tools and acoustic and electronic sounds."

Furthering that concept, the group also employed Anglo producers Dave Fridmann (the Flaming Lips, Mogwai) and Andrew Weiss (Ween), a move that "opened the spectrum of what this basic lineup could sound like," says Rangel. This approach created an inverse bookend to 1999's double-CD "Reves/Yosoy," which was split along traditional and experimental lines; Caminos often combines different flavors within the same song, as with the Indian echoes and grand, arena-rock sprawl of "Hoy Es." The results show off Tacuba's immodest musical ambitions while maintaining an approachable, user-friendly center, not unlike U2's most cohesive moments.

So far, that mix has been well received by critics and (more importantly) audiences. "When we hit the stage, the people are there," says Rangel, "connecting with what you say and what you sing and what you play." In that moment, however brief, everyone speaks the same language.