Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rubén Blades

  • Maestra Vida: Primera Parte [Fania, 1980] B
  • Maestra Vida: Segunda Parte [Fania, 1980] B
  • Nothing but the Truth [Elektra, 1988] B

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Maestra Vida: Primera Parte [Fania, 1980]
Willie Colon's vocalist has created a salsa album so artistically ambitious that it brooks no comparison--a music drama complete with synopsis and recorded dialogue that purports to sum up half a century of NuYorican struggle. As a non-Spanish-speaker with access to a privately provided trot, I'm impressed with his reach, his grasp, and his acting ability, but as a veteran of rock opera I feel constrained to note that these things rarely work as planned even when the audience knows the language. Since I'm no salsa expert, I can only observe that both the studied casualness of the production style--songs over backtalk, impromptu-sounding chorus--and the musical-comedy overture seem more effective dramatically than musically. Still, the context helps makes salsa accessible to the nonexpert. And it's possible Blades isn't just smarter than the Neon Philharmonic--he could be smarter than, gosh, Pete Townshend himself. B

Maestra Vida: Segunda Parte [Fania, 1980]
On a major label, this would have been disc two of a double-LP, relieving us of another overture. But the rock world rarely produces a song as physically beautiful (or solicitously observed) as "Carmelo, Después (El Viejo DaSilva)." Too many violins and not enough clave. But his heart and his head are in the right place. B

Nothing but the Truth [Elektra, 1988]
Although familiarity has tempered my dismay, my first response to Blades's assault on Anglophonia was embarrassment--just what WEA needed, another Jackson Browne album. Admittedly, it's a pretty good Jackson Browne album, with various class acts (Uncle Lou, Elvis C., Sting, and studio luminaries) pitching in for their (and my) favorite Hispanic liberal. When I suppress my corn immunity I'm moved by the AIDS song, the homeless song, and the barrio song. And except for Sting's contribution, I'm impressed by the rest--literate lyrics about Latin America, feckless idealism, and feckless love are never easy to come by. But that doesn't mean they're easy to bring off, and deprived of Seis del Solar's rolling undercurrents Blades is forced to serve them up straight, a skill he hasn't practiced like he has his English. Not that practice would make perfect--cf. Jackson Browne. B