On paper, the Aterciopelados don't always sound promising. In a given song, the band might combine pop with Andean pan flutes and less-than-subtle lyrics reminiscent of protest songs from the '60s. Their newest album, entitled Oye, has an anthem called, literally, Protest Song (Canción Protesta in the original Spanish). Other lyrics tend towards love and karma and the cosmos. It sounds like it could be the worst combination of the politically trite with the New Age but it's not. The Aterciopelados have been the critical darling of the rock en español scene for good reason. And their work simply gets better with every passing album.
A punk-inspired fusion of rock and folk, their first hit album, 1995's El Dorado, proved that they were more than just a local conversation piece. In fact, at the time, the album turned them into the biggest-selling rock band to come out of Colombia. Their 1997 follow-up, the more polished La Pipa de la Paz, cemented this reputation and earned them rave reviews in the U.S. as well.
Oye, which debuts this week, catches Aterciopelados in even better form. The album is a seamless collaboration that marries Echeverri's hypnotic vocals with Buitrago's steaming bass lines and adept arrangements. The first song, Complemento, sets the tone. On the surface, it's a catchy love song, in which the narrator describes meeting her match or "complement." But listen closely and you'll hear updated surf guitar paired with a subtle layer of those, yes, pan flutes. Echeverri's throatiness gives it an edge. The song is sticky in all the best ways.
More political but equally grabby is Don Dinero, the Aterciopelados's stinging critique of society's obsession with money. Buitrago's groovy bass is mixed with blaring Mexican trumpets, a touch of reverberating accordion and some twangy sounds imported from India all while Echeverri innocently croons: "Don Dinero how I love you/Don Dinero you are the main guy." In the same vein is Oye Mujer, a pop song that takes on the idea of the over-sexualized woman. "Sex object, piece of meat with a Barbie complex," growls Echeverri in the chorus. It sounds earnest, but it isn't. Both songs are melodic and danceable. The experience is like having vitamins in your candy: it tastes good and it's good for you, too.
For those who don't understand the lyrics, no matter. The musicality is ultimately what makes Oye worth listening to. Aterciopelados's true skill lies in its ability to take north-of-the-border musical styles rock, pop and punk and breath new life into them, all while giving them a distinctly Colombian sheen. The result is an album that explores new ground while remaining familiar. And that is something that sounds good regardless of language.