By Nicolai Wallace
Chicano Batman released their third album Freedom Is Free today – after their eponymous album (2010), Cycles Of Existential Rhyme (2014)- and if you liked Chicano Batman before, then this is exactly the album you wanted to hear.
The most enjoyable thing about Freedom is Free, is that it doesn’t lose it’s identity, while seamlessly blending in new flavors of soul and funk. After finding success in their original sound it would have been easy to continue with the same recipe or, alternatively, to take it in a more traditional direction, moving away from their quasi-erratic tempo changes and quirky organ-guitar jam arrangements.
But no, just as Robert Plant sang in The Song Remains the Same- any little song that you know, everything that’s small has to grow- Chicano Batman’s songs remain the same, holding onto their signature sound (wah pedals, blaring organs, etc), while simultaneously proving that they were destined to grow into something more than a niche LA band playing to packed clubs of loyal fans.
Listen to the track Friendship (is a small boat in a storm) as a great example of the familiar Chicano Batman style, enhanced by backing vocals performed by New York’s all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache.
Chicano Batman’s sound is deeply rooted in Afrobeat and Brazilian pop. In fact band founders Bardo Martinez and Eduardo Arenas met at a party when Arenas overheard Martinez singing Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso‘s Nine Out of Ten. But maybe their most important influence is Cumbia Peruana, a surfy, psychedelic take on cumbia from the 70’s. Chicano Batman has always blended these genres together with style and Gabriel Villa (drums) has somehow managed to master all these challenging rhythms with apparent ease.
Freedom is Free is no exception, retaining their pan-Latin roots and rhythms, but diverges in it’s incorporation of American funk and soul, in part thanks to a collaboration with famous New York Soul producer Leon Michels. Whose production credits include the Black Keys, The Arcs, Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings (of which he was a member on sax) and maybe most famously Lee Fields & The Expressions, 2008 album, My World.
As you enjoy Freedom is Free, it is interesting to listen for Michels’ signature horn arrangements and keyboard contributions as well as his soul and funk production techniques (like recording the whole album on analog tape).
The drums in particular are evidence of Michels’ recording ability. They are so crisp and classically recorded, that at times they sound like a sample of the late Clyde Stubblefield off of a James Brown track. Though previous Chicano Batman albums sounded good- both were recorded in bass player and vocalist, Eduardo Arenas’ home studio in no more than 2 days per album- Freedom is Free really benefits from Michel’s veteran production skill.
Aside from the production, the credit for this great album lies with the band, who have honed their sound into something smooth and simultaneously organic. Freedom is Free is Chicano Batman in their prime. The album is a testament to their musicianship and ability to come together as a band to explore a new genre and vision.
Like most good bands, each member seems truly passionate about making their specific instrument shine. If you decided to listen to just the guitar, vocals, keys, drums or bass individually, you would not be disappointed. But like the best bands, the mixture of all these unique parts blends into something bigger, without sounding murky or scattered.
A great example of this is the bass throughout the album. Pay special attention to Eduardo Arenas’ bass on “Freedom is Free” and “Angel Child” in particular. The lines are well crafted and frankly, funky as hell, defining and driving the songs.
Also listen for and enjoy Carlos Arévalo’s beautifully driven and drifting guitar intro and subsequent tremolo on the opening track Passed You By, followed closely by Martinez’s effortless vocals. It’s a terrific opening track and reminds you from the beginning why you listen to Chicano Batman. Later on in the album give a special listen to the charming, slow guitar during the changeup on Angel Child.
But a review of the album would not be complete without bringing attention to the album’s pensive, brash and deeply political lyrics (written by both Martinez and Arenas). On the album’s title track Freedom is Free, released as a single the day before Donald Trump’s inauguration, Martinez sings “freedom is free and you can’t take that away from me,” in a play on the militaristic idiom “freedom isn’t free.”
In a press statement Martinez explained: “Throughout our history the state has presented the rationale (through propagandistic means and ends) that freedom is not free; that your personal freedom is contingent and dependent on the well being of the state. This logic has explicitly justified war and its atrocities in the name of freedom. This song is an antithesis to that ideological fallacy.”
Another highly political song on the album is La Jura, dealing with police brutality and repeating the refrain “No entiendo por qué los que deben proteger hacen el opuesto, matan inocentes – I don’t understand why those who should protect do the opposite, killing innocent people.”
The album stands tall just on it’s alluring and unique sound, but the ability to integrate highly relevant political commentary without sounding contrived, sets Chicano Batman apart from most bands today.
Listen to Freedom Is Free