[CULTURES CLASHING] The idea of mashing together the disparate worlds of conjuntos from south of the border and modern, rain-soaked pop is a great one. But Y La Bamba has never really been able to put it into any clear practice. The sextet leans far too heavily on its American influences, opting too often for dewy-eyed twee drama. On Court the Storm, its second full-length, the Mexican folk side of the band's personality either shows up subtly or takes over completely. If one muted the accordion lines and Scott Magee's stuttering drumbeats, Y La Bamba's work would be indistinguishable from the rest of the Northwest folk-pop rabble.
It doesn't help that Court the Storm shines when the band is full on cumbia or mariachi mode. A song like "Viuda Encabronada" or "Como Ratones" comes along and the album takes flight. Singers Luzelena Mendoza and Paul Cameron start harmonizing with a lusty earthiness. The rest of the band sounds similarly inspired, playing with a fearless abandon.
Why, then, veer well away from this spirit throughout? Or add a stumbling near-arena-rock breakdown to the otherwise invigorating mariachi rave-up "Bendito"? I want to call it self-conscious, but if you've ever seen Y La Bamba live, you know the band isn't lacking confidence. And I wouldn't want to suggest the other songs on the album—the meanderingly lovely "Moral Panic," the title track's steady, dynamic, damn-near-epic album-closing march—aren't really coming straight from Mendoza's heart. What I can't shake is the feeling that the band is simply holding something back. I fear Y La Bamba is merely giving the people what they want: Intriguing small tastes of other cultures wrapped up in the safe and familiar.
SEE IT: Y La Bamba plays Music Millennium, 3518 E Burnside St., on Sunday, March 4. 3 pm. Free. All ages.