Cafe Tacuba and Radiohead: Sino + Rainbows

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Within mere days of each other in October of 2007, both Café Tacuba and Radiohead released their first studio albums in four years: Sino and In Rainbows, respectively. The timing, although coincidental, is significant, because while these albums are different from one another, the bands that produced them seem to have arrived at a similar point in their careers. Sino is the sixth studio release for the Latin rock band from Ciudad Satelite, the Mexico City suburb known for its colorful towers and middle-class utopias. In Rainbows, which British group Radiohead made available as a digital download through their website on October 10th, is the band’s seventh studio album.

Neither Café Tacuba nor Radiohead had released studio work since Hail to the Thief and Cuatro Caminos back in 2003. There seems to be a consensus among fans and critics alike: Café Tacuba’s Re (1994) was their major contribution to global pop music and Reves/Yo Soy (1999) their most experimental album to date. In a sense, Reves/Yo Soy is also the album that instilled the pressure to push innovation beyond Re. In the case of Radiohead, OK Computer (1997) is thought of as their landmark creation and one of the best rock albums of all times, while Kid A (2000) consolidated the band as a pioneering and demanding group. Of course Kid A also alienated fans who were expecting something in the line of OK Computer, or already missed the sound of Pablo Honey (1993) and The Bends (1995). Had Café Tacuba released their instrumental Revés on its own—as they intended to do—the record would have probably been compared to Kid A and shocked those expecting another Re.

The world of music distribution has changed a great deal during these bands’ lifetimes. Radiohead made the zip folder containing the 10 tracks of In Rainbows available exclusively through their website. And while one could also pre-order the box set—containing a second CD, two vinyl records, photography, and artwork for 40 pounds, which includes the cost of delivery—the fact that the digital format was made available on a pay-what-you-wish basis and without a record label is further proof of the arrival of a new era in the distribution of music.

The passing of time has of course produced changes for the musicians involved in both projects. Thom Yorke, the lead singer of Radiohead, released his first solo effort, The Eraser (2006); Jonny Greenwood and Phil Selway have kept busy composing music for film scores. Likewise, Café Tacuba’s front man Rubén Albarrán released a solo album as Sizu Yantra, Bienvenido al Sueño (2006), Joselo (Rangel) jump-started a solo career as well with two releases already under his belt, Oso (2003) and Lejos (2006). Quique Rangel often plays with other bands and Emanuel del Real has been producing projects for bands such as Austin TV and Natalie y La Forquetina. Yet in spite of rumors of an imminent end for these two bands–probably based on a spate of solo albums, collaborations, soundtracks, side projects, and mounting family responsibilities–are, at least for now, false.

However, Sino and In Rainbows sound different from what many had expected. Café Tacuba pretty much shed all obvious folkloric influences (part of their trademark sound when they first emerged) during their previous album Cuantro Caminos, but here, in Sino, they also re-engage electropop synths, delicate dream pop as well as 60s and classic rock sounds—including an energetic drum solo by Victor Indrizzo in the last track, “Gracias.” But while all of the tracks appear to be the work of a more conventionally pop/Latin rock-oriented Café Tacuba, the essential components that make the Tacvbos appealing to wide and diverse musical audience, namely their musical playfulness and on-point commentary, continue to be present and characteristically vigorous.

Sino opens with “Seguir siendo,” which begins delicately with the melancholic rhythm provided by a piano and a chorus that merges into “Tengo todo”. “53100” (the zip code for Ciudad Satelite), is the third track of the album and serves to remind us of the importance of geography as a metaphor for inner journeys. “El Outsider” does not particularly stand out, but the rhythmic backdrop is reminiscent of the collage of rhythms found in Re.

Radiohead’s In Rainbows sounds stylish and economical and—despite the choppy programmed percussion of the opening track “15 step”—the band has scaled back its electronic elements. The distortions and intensity of the vocals provide the album with a lingering hypnotic effect, as evident in “Bodysnatchers”, the album’s second track, which sounds like a classic rock track with a strong riff that becomes hazy as it picks up strength.

All four members of Café Tacuba participate, to some degree, on the vocals for Sino. On “Volver a comenzar,” after the interplay between a driving new wave synth and the voice of Ruben Albarrán (who now calls himself Ixxi Xoo), ground the song, the tempo slows down and Meme sings a chorus that bridges the track as Joselo takes over the vocals. “Vamonos” is a youthful song with a certain lightness that results in pure pop bliss and “Y es que…” is a straightforward rock track with plenty of rhythm and an emphasis on melody. “Gracias” is the song in which the Tacvbos take on the political simulations of the Mexican technocratic democracy. In this song, they describe a dream nation in which second class citizens do not exist, frauds and corruption have been eradicated and freedom, democracy, and state of law rule supreme—all quite ironic considering the polarization caused by the past presidential elections, the violent political repression in Atenco and Oaxaca, and investigations into the accumulated assets of the ex-presidential family.

Reflexivity also seems to be the driving force behind In Rainbows. The song “Nude” has a beautiful meditative quality but warns us “Don’t get any big ideas/They’re not gonna happen.” “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” gradually picks up the rhythm and takes us to the middle of the album, which maintains a calm delivery until “Jigsaw Falling into Place” shakes the mood. The record comes to a close with “Videotape,” a beautiful song crafted from the melancholic repetition of a piano, marching percussion, and an ambivalent end.

Both In Rainbows and Sino are essential listening material for 2007. In each, we get hints of the best pop music can offer—beauty, reflexivity and urban mediations. And, while neither the Tacvbos nor Radiohead have ever given their fans exactly what they expect, nor necessarily what they want, these two albums feel like the work of bands that have been delivered from the pressure to break musical ground. These bands just seem to enjoy creating music that is in tune with their present moment. Each album is enfolded within a certain melancholy that evokes the passing of time–of finding yourself in a new locality, newly grounded with an emergent sense of self that allows for a serene examination of past decisions and a re-evaluation of priorities. These albums are the work of veteran musicians who, while engaging with the realities of their times, seem to have acquired a certain fondness for the world of pop. Yet they’ve remained experimental and blatantly insubordinate and, because of this, have managed to develop a solid grip on it.