In his 2011 essay of the same name, writer/critic Simon Reynolds proposes the term “Xenomania” to refer to the influence and assimilation of sounds of countries from around the world into Western pop music. Many artists working in different genres incorporate these sounds into their own work to make it fresh and interesting. “As with the rap and rave inspired global-ghetto styles,” he writes, “there can sometimes be an unsettling sense that the attraction of this music is that it provides a distorted mirror image of Western pop: in other words, a slightly askew, exotic-but-ultimately-familiar version of things we already love.”
Mexico is the perfect place for “xenomaniacs”. Being right next door to the USA, Mexicans get to experience Western culture pretty much as it’s happening, for better or for worse. At the same time, the country has a strong culture hundreds of years deep (regionally spiced), and is constantly informed by other cultures the world over, past and present. There’s strong mestizaje going on in various parts of its current music scene which makes it one of the global forerunners in this trend. When it comes to pop, however, we’re still waiting for that one band to write catchy songs with sounds borrowed from the barrio as well as exotic places like Asia and Africa.
Little Jesus is not quite that band, but they do represent the next step in xenomania. The Mexico City quintet writes dancey rock songs with high pitched guitar riffs, Afrobeat rhythms and slightly off-kilter melodies to make you jump around and sing along. They are also really good doing what they are doing and, with Norte, have also written some of the catchiest tunes of the year.
What separates them from others playing this type of music are two factors. First, they are very much aware of Mexican pop rock tradition from the past, directly or otherwise; choruses remind the listener of Azul Violeta, Fobia and even Café Tacvba (to some extent), making anyone familiar with nineties rock en tu idioma feel at home with their songs. Second, they have serious arrangements skills; every verse, bridge and riff is meant to be met with frenzied bouncing and shouts from the fun loving crowd. They also know how to use the studio, adding delays, synths and other effects to flesh out a very round sound.
“Pesadilla” opens things up to establish their sound, rhythmic and polyphonic using traditional rock instruments with a few electronics thrown in for good measure. Highlights include “Cruel” with a short, looped and slightly fuzzed out main riff that makes it sound like a Foals outtake. “Truco” boasts the same basic sound but its bassline and beat combo recalls a classic from the Mexican rock pantheon: “Paquita Disco” by La Lupita, while its chorus gets lifted by Beach Boys-like vocal harmonies. “Químicos” gives the album some variety by delving in a hard and square rock beat instead of flowing dance drumming. Norte wraps things up with “Sur”, a reverb-drenched ballad driven by a gentle keyboard before the tune finds a (subdued) beat and some steel drums in the middle.
There are a few shortcomings. If you’re not already into this kind of pop music, it will surely drive you insane from the get go. LJ are insistent and constantly try to prove their catchiness at all costs. When given a passing listen, some of their songs will sound too similar, and their length can be troubling; most of the tracks are seconds shy from the five minute mark which is ideal for the dancefloor but a little bit of a chore for listeners at home. Some might be inclined to hit the skip button before things get climatic.
Ultimately, however, Little Jesus (and others like them) are a tangent of Xenomania, where the musical language and influence comes from others like Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors, who have already digested exotic sounds from far and wide. For them, it’s no longer a quest to find the rarest scales and instruments for inspiration, but to use an established sound to make great songs. By embracing the middlemen, they synthesize music into a new polycultural folk idiom to make some seriously amazing songs. It’s when tirelessly listening and assimilating a world of rhythms and sounds pays off.