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Willie Colón/Rubén Blades

Reviewed on this page:
El Malo - Guisando - De Panamá A Nueva York - Asalto Navideño - Cosa Nuestra - El Juicio - Lo Mato Si No Compra Este LP - The Good - The Bad - The Ugly - El Baquine De Angelitos Negros - Metiendo Mano - Only They Could Have Made This Album - Siembra - Bohemio Y Poeta - Solo - Siembra - Live - Maestra Vida - Fantasmas - Canciones Del Solar De Los Aburridos - The Last Fight - Corazón Guerrero -Vigilante - El Que Le Hace La Paga - Mucho Mejor - Criollo - Buscando América - Tiempo Pa' Matar - Escenas - Especial No. 5 - Crossover Dreams - Doble Filo - Agua De Luna - The Winners - With Strings - Nothing But The Truth - Antecedente - Top Secrets - Live! - Color Americano - Honra Y Cultura - Caminando - Amor Y Control - Hecho En Puerto Rico - Tras La Tormenta - Y Vuelve Otra Vez! - La Rosa De Los Vientos - Demasiado Corazón - Tiempos - Mundo - El Malo Vol II: Prisioneros Del Mambo - Cantares Del Subdesarrollo - Todos Vuelven Live

Willie Colón is one of the giants of modern salsa, a popular trombonist and bandleader since the late 1960s. Born and raised in the Bronx, he hasn't shied away from incorporating R&B and rock influences into his music, without compromising his Latin identity; Sal Cuevas, his bassist during the late 70s and early 80s, played unusually far-forward - his funk-inspired slapping gives a distinctive flavor to songs like "Casanova," "Juanito Alimaña" and "Tiempo Pa' Matar." As time has gone by, Colón has expanded his musical palette still further, drawing on Brazillian influences and even flirting with hip-hop. Initially cultivating a rather stereotypical gangster image, he has become an articulate and responsible public figure - even running for US Congress in 1994 - clever at injecting political messages into his music without becoming overbearing.

Rubén Blades brought the lyrical sophistication of South American "nueva canción" and Cuban "nueva trova" to salsa, telling acidly-rendered stories of devastated lives, but with an everpresent message of hope. After 1980, Blades wanted out of his contract with the exploitative Fania label, but was contractually obligated to record several more albums; these were generally toss- offs and Blades himself tells his fans to avoid them. After signing with Electra, Blades assembled a top-notch band (known variously as Seis Del Solar or Son Del Solar). Then he fell in with a set of West Coast liberals (Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt), started making movies, ran for president of his native Panama (although he hadn't lived there for two decades) and in between still manages to make some excellent music. Note to gringos: Blades is fully bilingual, and does his own translations into English (all his post-Fania LPs come with lyrics in both languages), which makes it possible to fully appreciate the poetry in his best work. And there's a very nice discography of all the songs Blades has written and/or sung.

I'm still missing some of the early Colón albums, but I'm working on it. Hector Lavoe is the vocalist on many of Willie's early records (Willie also produced Lavoe's first solo albums), followed by Blades; eventually Colón got tired of dealing with egos and starting singing lead himself. When he's not planning his farewell tour, Colón runs his own web site; he's even linked to us, which is nice of him since we don't exactly see eye to eye on certain of his albums. (DBW)

El Malo (Colón: 1967)
Recorded when Willie was just seventeen, but it displays canny business sense as well as talent: Colón included two English-language tunes in the then-hot boogaloo style (the embarrassingly unforgettable "Skinny Papa"), and a terrific, organ-heavy example of the even shorter-lived shingaling craze ("Willie Whopper," which sounds like an urban answer to "Incense And Peppermints"). He even managed to boost his name recognition by making many of the songs about himself ("Willie Baby"). Of course, there's also room for the fresh takes on traditional rhythms that would actually make his reputation: son ("Chonqui"), guaguanco ("Borinquen") and bomba (title track). The recording (at least on my CD re-release) is admirably clean for the era, and though the band is unpolished, the teenage bandleader has them going all-out ("Quimbombo"). Hector Lavoe's on lead vocals; pianist Dwight Brewster co-wrote several of the tunes with Colón, including the aptly titled opener "Jazzy"; other musicians include Eddie Guagua and James Taylor (bass), Joe Santiago (trombone), and Mario Galagarza, Pablo Rosario and Nick Marrero (percussion). (DBW)

The Hustler (Colón: 1968)

The Big Break - La Gran Fuga (Colón: 1969)
The source of the early hit "Barrunto." (DBW)

Guisando (Colón: 1969)
Not packed with hits like Colón's classic albums, but it's quality work: even the simplest tunes have unpredictable dynamics changes and tasty solos (the instrumental "I Wish I Had A Watermelon," with an understated trombone solo from the leader; the infectious, self-promoting "Con Willie Colón Se Baila Mejor"). Though there's some frantic salsa ("Oiga Señor"), the two best tracks are midtempo: "No Me Den Candela," a kinetic guaguancó with forceful trombones and a wittily arranged break, and the hit "Te Estan Buscando" (by Mark Diamond - everything else is by Colón, alone or in collaboration with lead vocalist Hector Lavoe). And as usual for Fania recordings from this era, the sound is clean but the rhythm section is far back in the mix, so the recordings don't pack the punch that the tunes and the band were trying to deliver ("El Titan"). (DBW)

De Panamá A Nueva York (Blades: 1970)
Recorded with the Pete Rodriguez orchestra, this was a flop at the time but sounds pretty good 25 years later: the band is hot ("Descarga Caliente") and the tunes - all by Blades - are adventurous and exciting ("Amanecer") as often as they're clichéd and silly ("When," a ballad with English lyrics). I read somewhere that this record didn't sell because NY audiences weren't yet interested in hearing about Central America ("Juan González," title cut). I've never seen this on CD, but it's worth checking out if you can find it. After this, Blades returned to Panama and finished law school, coming to New York again in 1974. (DBW)

Asalto Navideño (Colón: 1971)
A Christmas album, with the funny if stereotype-reinforcing album cover and a batch of holiday tunes ("Popurri Navideño," "Aires De Navidad"). However, it's best known for the non-Christmas-related monster hit "La Murga," a terrific blend of layered rhythm, trombone hook, and lengthy cuatro solo. Colón and singer Hector Lavoe also find room for an ode to Puerto Rico, "Canto A Borinquen." It's quite folksy and acoustic compared to Colón's usual sound, and I confess a preference for his more urban-oriented work, but the tunes are pleasant ("Aires De Navidad," with knowing trumpet slides), carefully arranged (the lengthy vamp on "Esta Navidad") and miles above the usual treacly Xmas composition. Plus, Colón gets big points for refraining from performing "Feliz Navidad." There are some tossoffs, like the opening "Introducción" - an instrumental with voiceover from Polito Vega, long a fixture on NY radio - and I wouldn't shell out big bucks for this, but it's worth a look even if you already have "La Murga" on a compilation. As usual for Fania CD releases, there are no liner notes and no listing of composers or musicians, but I assume that's Yomo Toro playing all those cuatro solos. (DBW)

Cosa Nuestra (Colón: 1972)
Willie's first gold album, with the hits "Che Che Colé" and "Te Conozco." Almost all the tunes are by Colón and/or his lead singer Hector Lavoe, and they're all good - the slow numbers ("Ausencia") are as gripping as the faster salsa ("Juana Peña"). The lyrics are mostly about the harsh realities of life in El Barrio, often astonishingly poignant ("No Me Llores Más"). The band's not as polished as the late 70s band or Legal Alien, but even more vital, and there are lots of crafty percussion breaks and horn riffs. If you're interested in Colón's breakthrough sound you can't go wrong with this disc. The only problem is relatively weak sound quality, at least on the CD I have. (DBW)

El Juicio (Colón: 1972)
Not as outstanding as the surrounding LPs, but it does have two early NY salsa classics: the swinging "Piraña," by C. Curet Alonso, and Colón's own "Ah Ah/O No" which is silly but infectious fun. Even when the results are mixed, the variety is impressive - the lackluster love song "Siguire Sin Ti"; the overlong jam "Timbalero"; the jazz-salsa hybrid "Pan Y Agua"; the santería-influenced "Aguanile." And it's hard to go far wrong when the band is this fearsome, the arrangements are this sharp (the ocean of percussion on the otherwise forgettable "Si La Ves"), and Lavoe's on vocals. (DBW)

Lo Mato Si No Compra Este LP (Colón: 1973)
The cover shot (Willie holding a gun to a hostage's head; the title means "I'll kill him if you don't buy this record.") generated a lot of publicity, but the best music here is far more enduring: "Calle Luna, Calle Sol" is as sharply rendered and gripping as anything you'll ever hear, with meter shifts that sound perfectly natural, and piles of hooks. Other key tracks include the stark, stately "Todo Tiene Su Final" - driven by trombones in tight harmony - and the fast-paced "El Día De Mi Suerte," while "Guajira Ven" is an early exploration of Puerto Rican rural (or "jibaro") music. But it's not in the top rank of Colón albums: the Afro-Brazilian "Vo So" may be the least exciting of his hits, with a shrill, irritating refrain, and the closing jam "Junio '73" doesn't add up to much, though you do get a rare extended solo from the leader. (DBW)

Asalto Navideño Vol II (Colón: 1973)
This follow-up wasn't nearly as successful as the original; the single was "La Banda." (DBW)

The Good - The Bad - The Ugly (Colón: 1975)
Back from a brief retirement, Colón was ready to experiment, and he ranges from danzón (the instrumenatal "Doña Toña") to rock ("MC2") to bossa nova. Colón sings most of the leads, though Lavoe croons the gentle guajiro-styled "Que Bién Te Ves" and Blades contributes an unusually gravelly-voiced vocal on "El Cazanguero," which Blades had composed in his university days back in Panama. Overall it's an interesting though not entirely successful project: cuatro virtuoso Yomo Toro is outstanding, Elliott Randall's electric guitar playing is amusing, and the cleverly-arranged instrumental "I Feel Campesino" foreshadows later work like El Baquiño. But several of the tunes Colón didn't write range from run-of-the-mill ("Toma") to silly ("Cua Cua Ra, Cua Cua"). A groundbreaking record, though he would later assimilate these different styles more successfully. (DBW)

El Baquiné De Angelitos Negros (Colón: 1977)
This was a salsa ballet, produced for public television. I haven't seen the ballet, but the music is a striking departure from Colón's earlier work: it's all instrumental, and much of the disc is basically Latin jazz ("El Baquine," "Acuerdete"). If you're looking for danceable salsa, you'll probably be disappointed, although "Para Los Viejitos" is effective, and there are uptempo stretches in several other tunes. Much of the music is incidental, and there are no great melodies, but the emotional and musical range of the entire piece is remarkable - if you're a Colón fan you'll want to have this. (DBW)

Metiendo Mano (Colón Presents Blades: 1977)
Very much in the same style as the breakthrough Siembra, but not as polished. Only a few Blades compositions, but they include the classics "Pablo Pueblo" and "Pueblo," and the tunes he didn't write are also tuneful, and often socially-concerned to boot (C. Curet Alonso's remarkable "Plantación Adentro," Johnny Ortiz' "Lluvia De Tu Cielo"). (DBW)

Only They Could Have Made This Album (Colón & Celia Cruz: 1977)
At first glance, this might seem like an odd matching of superstars: Cruz is best known for singing traditional Cuban song forms, often music of the countryside, while Colón had built a reputation as the ultimate street-smart urban salsero. At second glance, it's still weird - but it mostly works anyway, thanks to Colón's omnivorous approach. He sets her up with acoustic guajiro tunes ("Plazos Traicioneros"), boleros ("Dulce Habanera") and some potent salsa ("Tu Y Las Nubes"), plus some efforts to crosspollinate genres ("Zambullete") which are interesting if not particularly successful. The big hit "Usted Abusó" - made by a simple, stunning piano break arranged by Colón - is from Brazil, of all places, and has been covered recently by Daniela Mercury. Colón produced, played bass trumpet, and arranged several tunes, but naturally he left all the lead vocals to Cruz. Ironically, she's the least satisfying part of the record for me: I find her singing not nuanced enough to be revealing, and not direct enough to be moving - if you are a fan, you should like her in this setting, if only for the variety of musical styles on display. I don't have writers' credits for most of the tracks here; in contrast to most of Colón's work, the songs are nearly all romantic, without a trace of social comment. (DBW)

Siembra (Blades & Colón: 1978)
A classic from beginning to end. Almost every song is written by Blades, and he's at his best: the vivid imagery of "Plastico" (initally a comment on materialism and falseness, then evolving into a call for Latin American unity) combined with a complex, shifting arrangement served notice that a major new talent had arrived. "Pedro Navaja," Blades' version of "Mack The Knife," is a masterpiece; there is a beautiful love song ("Dime"); and under Colón's watchful eye, the music never gets stale or repetitive. (DBW)

Bohemio Y Poeta (Blades: 1979)
No new material here, it's a compilation of tracks from Metiendo Mano, plus songs he'd cut with Ray Barretto, Louie Ramírez, and the Fania All-Stars. But there's some fine stuff ("Juan Pachanga" is an early example of his social story songs, bolstered with a clever vibes solo by Ramírez; the extended salsa-jazz workout "Canto Abacuá" with Barretto's top-notch band), and the original albums many of these tracks come from aren't easy to find nowadays. Also includes an ode to his then-girlfriend, "Paula C." which is drowned in strings. (DBW)

Solo (Colón: 1979)
Recorded with a full orchestra, including a few instrumentals - almost everything composed by Colón. It's certainly different from the rest of his work - although El Baquine De Angelitos Negros has some similarities - and interesting (the instrumental "Chinacubana" in particular); the arrangements are quite competent, making you wonder why he never explored this approach further. The hit single here was "Sin Poderte Hablar." Willie's first album singing lead vocal, although he'd sung an occasional lead previously (El Bueno, El Malo y El Feo for example). (DBW)

Siembra - Live (rec. 1980, rel. 2010)
Some people don't care for live albums, but I sure do: apart from giving the backing band a chance to show their stuff, I nearly always develop a better appreciation for the compositions being played. In this case, I'd forgotten what wonderful songs "Dime" and "Plantación Adentro" are, while everyone gets into the act on an extended spin through "Buscando Guayaba" (with one of the best bridge vamps you will ever hear). Most of Siembra is covered, plus two songs from Metiendo Mano ("Pablo Pueblo"), and everything is a classic (Johnny Ortiz's brilliant "Ojos" is probably the weakest tune here), so there's not much to grumble about. I'm assuming this wasn't released sooner because of sound quality problems: Blades is always clearly audible, but everyone else drifts up and down in the mix (Cuevas in particular is usually too loud or too soft) and the crowd noise is tinny. (DBW)

Maestra Vida (Blades: 1980)
This is a two part work, released on two separate LPs (and now CDs), but I'm going to review it as one. It's a concept album, tracing the story of a Latin American family through two generations. It's a major work, carefully conceived and executed, with thoughtful lyrics and original music (produced by Colón) from a variety of genres. The best songs (the title track, "Dejenme Reir Para No Llorar," "El Viejo Da Silva") are among Blades' best work. But like most operas, this has some throwaway material needed to advance the plot ("Carmelo"), and a lot of spoken dialogue that gets dull after a while. Unfortunately, the CD release doesn't have the liner notes or printed lyrics from the original LP release did. (DBW)

Fantasmas (Colón: 1980)
"Oh Que Sera," by Brazilian dissident Chico Buarque, is a memorable, low-key rumination on life, driven by a powerful but understated Sal Cuevas bass line. The other hit was "Amor Verdadero," disco-merengue with an effective rhythm guitar hook, although the album version is rather longer than anybody really needs. There's also a really neat production trick on the album- ending "Toma Mis Manos" where the backing vocals soar off into outer space. Beyond that, the album is slow and ballad-heavy, which would be fine except that Colón doesn't really have the voice to pull it off. (DBW)

Canciones Del Solar De Los Aburridos (Blades & Colón: 1981)
"Aburridos" (bored guys) is certainly the right word here. Willie and Rubén both sound bored, and you probably will be too. The album starts off promisingly enough, with a nice Blades composition on US imperialism in the Caribbean ("Tiburón") and the ominous "Te Estan Buscando," but quickly descends into unengaging silliness ("Madame Kulalu," "El Teléfonito" with its irritating "ring ring" chorus) and bland, by-the-numbers salsa ("Ligia Elena"). (DBW)

The Last Fight (Colón & Blades: 1982)
A movie soundtrack. This sounds like it was cut in a weekend: the two new Blades compositions are tossoffs, and the rest is rearrangements of standards. By this point Blades was seeking to complete his Fania contract as rapidly as possible. But Colón's band is so good even the most mediocre material holds your interest, and Blades' "What Happened" is amusing. (DBW)

Corazón Guerrero (Colón: 1982)
An album of covers, including some unlikely tunes like Carole King's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" Some of it works brilliantly (Jacques Brel's "Dormido No" becomes a rousing romp, "El Hijo Y El Papá" is as tender a song on fatherhood as I've ever heard), in other places it fails rather dramatically (the title song by Mark Knopfler). (DBW)

Vigilante (Colón: 1983)
Colón's reunion with Hector Lavoe, although Colón sings the lengthy title track. "Vigilante" is brilliantly arranged, with luscious strings providing a backdrop for stinging instrumental solos, including an extended guitar solo by George Wodenius. Lyrically, the album is hilariously irresponsible, with the Bernie Goetz-like endorsement of extralegal revenge on the title track, and the celebration of a gangster on the scorching "Juanito Alimaña." The album closer is another eleven minute marathon, "Pase La Noche Fumando," and it's amusing if not a masterpiece. (DBW)

El Que La Hace La Paga (Blades: 1983)
This is a contractual obligation Fania release; it's available on a two-for-one CD with Mucho Mejor - the rerelease is called Poeta Latina. But even though Blades wasn't putting his all into this one (three originals out of seven cuts) it's pretty good anyway: uncluttered, danceable salsa ("La Pasado No Perdona" and "Para Ser Rumbero" are standouts) if lightweight lyrically ("Te Odio y Te Quiero"), and Blades is a fine singer as always. (DBW)

Mucho Mejor (Blades: 1984)
That's a misleading title if ever I've heard one. Another contractual obligation Fania release, now available on a two-for-one CD (see above). It's enjoyable, with some nice tunes ("Amor Pa' Que"), but it's run of the mill NY salsa product, with nothing to recommend it but professional craftspersonship. (DBW)

Criollo (Colón: 1984)
There's a lot of exceptional material here, including a fun anti- nuke number ("La Era Nuclear"), an anti-military song that got Willie banned in Chile ("El General"), a jazzy, strange celebration of blind musicians ("Son Ellos"), and several explorations of Brazilian music: "Me Das Motivo" (a hit for Tim Maia), "Miel" by Caetano Veloso, and Willie's own "Copacabana, Ipanema, Leblón." He changed labels right after this record, and says the label buried the record because of its politics. Generally more mellow than his 70s work, but consistently original and carefully produced. (DBW)

Buscando América (Blades: 1984)
Blades' mass-market breakthrough, with plenty of tuneful, energetic salsa: "Desapariciones," "El Padre Antonio," "Todos Vuelven." I find "Decisiones" kind of cutesy, but it was a big hit. The slower songs are just as successful, from the almost-spoken word "GDBD" to the low-key "Caminos Verdes" to the extended title track. (DBW)

Tiempo Pa' Matar (Colón: 1984)
Another quality effort from Colón: there's funky bass and screeching violins on the anti-war title track, and the plaintive love song "Gitana." He overuses saccharine female backing vocalists on "Voló" but redeems the track with an exceptional piano solo. There's also yet another Chico Buarque composition, "Noche De Los Enmascarados." The album closer, "Callejón Sin Salida," is a tour de force, with Colón pulling out everything he can think of: seven or eight different musical sections, flute solos, reggae rhythms, stabbing strings, female backing vocals, a perfect imitation of Los Van Van's songo, even a rock-style electric guitar solo. (DBW)

Escenas (Blades: 1985)
Lots of brilliant material, compassionate but uncompromising, and most of the music is equal to the lyrics: "Cuentas Del Alma" is one of his finest compositions; he transforms Los Van Van's "Muévete" into a political call without losing the groove (Van Van returned the compliment by covering the brooding "Tierra Dura" from this album); and "Sorpresas" continues the story of Pedro Navaja from Siembra. By now Blades is starting to rely heavily on synthesizers, but isn't using them in an innovative way - the synth solo by Joe Jackson is a case in point. "Caína" is a routine anti-drug tune, and many of the songs are too long. But it's still an excellent introduction to his work. (DBW)

Especial No. 5 (Colón: 1986)
Recorded in Venezuela; this is Colón's experiment with synthesizers and drum machines. It's somewhat successful: "Lo Que Es De Juan" is exciting and chock-full of riffs, "Soltera"'s drum machine-driven rhythm is classically late 80s, like Banda Blanca's "Sopa De Caracól." The album is padded out with a lengthy medley of his early hits - I've heard the arrangement in concert, and it's very effective, but on record it's redundant: you're better off getting the original versions. (DBW)

Crossover Dreams (Blades etc.: 1986)
The soundtrack to Blades' film debut, and it's extremely uneven. Blades hardly sings at all, and when he does he's either in character, singing a pop number with a mind-numbing slap bass part ("Good For Baby") or one of several versions of "Todos Vuelven," which he'd already recorded on Buscando América. (He also sings "Sin Fé" which appears on not one but two of the Fania contractual obligation albums.) Much of the other music sounds like film background music ("Rudy's Theme"); there are a few bright spots: solo piano turns by José Gallegos and Mario Rizo, and some fine traditional vocals by Virgilio Martí ("Elegua"). But one cut lifted from Super All-Stars - featuring Tito Puente, Paquito D'Rivera, Chocolate Armenteros, Daniel Ponce and more - embarrassingly shows up the rest of the music on the album. (DBW)

Doble Filo (Blades: 1987)
I think this was recorded years earlier, but held back by Fania so they could more effectively milk his fame. Anyway, like the earlier contract obligation albums, the album is straightforward salsa: tuneful, professional and effective. The mushy ballad "Duele" is a low point, but even there the arrangement is interesting. It's all completely apolitical, and certainly not as good as the work Blades was really putting his heart into, but not disappointing for fans. (DBW)

Agua De Luna (Blades: 1987)
This was another concept album from Blades; this time each song is based on a story by Colombian magic realist Gabriel García- Marquez. (Since I don't know the stories, I'm undoubtedly missing a lot.) "Ojos De Perro Azul" is a masterpiece, both lyrically and musically. On most of the other tracks, lifeless synths are very prominent, and the arrangements stick to block chords repeated over and over again, giving the sound an elevator music quality. It's a shame, because the lyrics are terrific ("Laura Farina," "La Cita," "Blackamán") as often as they're incomprehensible ("Claro Oscuro," "No Te Duermas"). (DBW)

The Winners (Celia Cruz & Willie Colón: 1987)
This wasn't a huge hit, and since I'm not a Cruz fan I wasn't expecting much from this. But it's a lot of fun: the opening "Un Bembe Pa' Yemaya" is a blend of house rhythms and traditional santería chanting, anticipating India's later efforts in that direction. The rest of the disc is swinging, standard-issue salsa, with enough memorable tunes ("Son Matamoros," "Se Tambalea") to make up for the occasional cheesy lyric ("El Paraiso"). The packaging of my CD release is abysmal, and I don't know who wrote the tunes; Colón produced, as usual, but doesn't do much singing or trombone playing. Not a high point in either artist's career, but an enjoyable sidetrip. (DBW)

With Strings (Blades: 1988)
The low point of the Fania contractual obligation albums; the most sappy tunes from the previous Fania LP's, rerecorded or with strings overdubbed. (Actually, "Duele" sounds exactly like the version on Doble Filo.) There is one song that's not a rerun: "Tú Sabes Mucho," and it's easily the album's highlight: an unsentimental ballad that Blades sings with real feeling. The album cover, where Blades is inexplicably represented as a redhead, is also worth seeing. For Blades completists. (DBW)

Nothing But The Truth (Blades: 1988)
This was Rubén's English-language album, with tracks written by Sting, Lou Reed, and Elvis Costello. He takes on styles from pop to rock to reggae, even doo-wop - no salsa, though - and generally does credibly. The main problems are overreliance on his friends (Sting's number is standard second-rate Sting; Reed's stuff may be as good or better than his usual, but to me it's either cynical or clichéd or both) and toothless lyrics ("The Hit"). The Contragate number ("Ollie's Doo-Wop") is supposed to be funny but just falls flat. One exception is the fine "The Miranda Syndrome" with Costello, which overcomes its silly chorus with thoughtful verses and a solid melody; the AIDS tearjerker "The Letter" is also a beautiful piece of work. (DBW)

Antecedente (Blades: 1988)
This was an abrupt shift in direction for Blades, jettisoning synthesizers and mood music for hard-hitting traditional salsa. He also backs away from bizarre poetic lyrics, opting instead for common themes rooted in everyday experience, to the point where they're sometimes clichéd ("Nuestro Adios"). Personally, I would've preferred keeping the spacey lyrics with the traditional music, but what the hell. "Patria" is a beautiful song, with gentle, understated instrumental backing; "La Marea" and "Noches Del Ayer" aren't profound but they're undeniably powerful. (DBW)

Top Secrets (Colón: 1989)
Colón had a huge hit with the Omar Alfanno composition "El Gran Varon," a sympathetic portrayal of a gay man who is abandoned by his family and eventually dies of AIDS; the tune switches from quiet pathos to swinging abandon punctuated with syncopated horn riffs, then back to pathos, back to abandon... still makes me cry almost every time I listen to it, and I'm not the most sentimental type of guy. Throughout, there are hellacious horn lines and jazzy chord progressions; his incredible rhythmic sense brings interest to even the album's most lightweight compositions, and lifts the best (like the final track "Marta") into the stratosphere. (DBW)

Live! (Blades: 1990)
An unsurprising collection of big hits; the good thing about this release (two LP's on one CD) is that the band has a lot more bite live than on their sometimes-overproduced studio LPs. Blades is also in fine form, with an easygoing sense of fun that takes some of the bleakness out of songs like "Decisiones" and "Cuentas Del Alma." The bad news is that the tunes stretch out for minute after minute, long after everyone's run of new things to say. One track was left off the CD release, the cassette-only "Patria." (DBW)

Color Americano (Colón: 1990)
One of Willie's most consistent albums, with his band Legal Alien in top form (listen to the razor-sharp playing on "Aerolinea Desamor") and a selection of catchy, hook-laden tunes. Two merengues written by Colón, "Carmelina" and "Me Voy," are outstanding. The Latin-pride title track and hit single "Vida Nocturna" are enjoyable if typical, and the album closer "Hasta Que Te Conocí" goes on a bit too long but builds to a gorgeous, strangely serene climax. (DBW)

Honra Y Cultura (Colón: 1991)
The hit was "No," attacking a whole shopping list of social ills, but the album's real winner is "Scandal," which cleverly mixes salsa with hip-hop, English with Spanish, and even samples Colón's "La Murga" to make its rather banal point about media intrusion into the lives of famous people. There's also a nice comment on the 1492 anniversary and Puerto Rican independence, "Quinientos Años," and a Sting cover, of all things ("Fragilidad"). I guess since he'd already covered the Dire Straits I shouldn't be surprised by anything anymore. (DBW)

Caminando (Blades: 1991)
Workmanlike and entertaining, with tuneful, intelligent dance songs ("Camaleon") and love songs ("Ella Se Esconde"), but he seems more restrained than usual, as if he's on doctor's orders not to exert himself, except on the rousing agitprop "Prohibido Olvidar." Rubén's own song on a homosexual theme ("El") comes across as well-intentioned but flat. (DBW)

Amor Y Control (Blades: 1992)
The album-opening merengue "El Apagón" is a catchy and enjoyable look at underdevelopment, filled with clever lines, even if he does compare Fidel Castro to Anastasio Somoza. The centerpiece of the record, though, is the moving three-part ode to his recently-deceased mother, consisting of the title track, "Canción A La Madre" and "Canción A La Muerte." The love songs ("Creo En Tí," "Piensa En Mí") are effective though not outstanding, and "El Cilindro" and "Naturaleza Muerta" are wry comments on the impact of modern technology on everyday life. There are also several weak tracks: the dull Caribbean-influenced "West Indian Man"; "Adán García" is another story song, but not particularly effective; the Beatles tune "Baby's In Black" is atrocious, you'll be programming your CD player to skip it; and Blades' response to the Quincentennial ("Conmemorando") tries so hard to avoid offending anyone that it ends up not saying much of anything. (DBW)

Hecho En Puerto Rico (Colón: 1993)
The single "Idilio" is pretty, with a nice trombone solo from Colón. The rest of the album sounds like it was phoned in: nowadays Colón doesn't bother to write songs anymore, and he doesn't seem to be paying much attention to the arrangements either - ten years ago he never would have released a routine effort like "Por Eso Canto." (DBW)

Tras La Tormenta (Blades & Colón: 1995)
After much hype, and after both Colón and Blades were defeated in their respective electoral races, this reunion album was finally released. I bought it hoping to hear some of the lyrical and musical brilliance of Siembra, and from that perspective it's a total letdown: nothing here is as heartfelt or as tightly focused as even the weakest track on that album. But if you adjust your expectations, there is some enjoyable material here: the Blades tune "Desahucio" is fun although it's very familiar territory for him; Colón sings a passable merengue that takes aim at greed and hypocrisy ("Caer En Gracia"); and the duet "Doña Lelé" is pleasantly danceable, although the theme about a homeless woman isn't any more interesting than Crystal Waters' "Gypsy Woman." (DBW)

Y Vuelve Otra Vez! (Colón: 1996)
Willie's still coasting here: he didn't write or even arrange any of the tunes, and it sounds pretty much like anything you'd hear on your local salsa station. But this time most of the tunes are fun and at least intermittently interesting: "Cayo Condón" is a mini-encyclopedia of Caribbean dance music; "Me Pegue En La Lotería" is a ne'er-do-well's revenge; "Sevillana" is Spanish-flavored and pretty; "Borinquen Parada 22" is clever political satire. (DBW)

La Rosa De Los Vientos (Blades: 1996)
His first solo album since an unsuccessful bid for Panama's presidency, Blades recorded the album in that country with an all-Panamanian cast. To make sure you don't miss the point, the title track ends with a recitation of different parts of the country, a nationalistic updating of his earlier celebrations of Latin American unity. After a break of a few years you'd think he'd have a lot of tunes saved up, but he only writes one song here ("Amor Mudo"), also setting a Mayan manuscript to music. The balance of the disc is turned over to a wide variety of writers, and most of the tunes just aren't very interesting ("Ganas De Verte"). "Sin Querer Queriendo" is the only straightforward salsa track to be found, with most of the rest either ballads ("Tu Mejor Amiga" is the weakest, with a Vegas-style female duet vocal) or cumbias. I regret to say that I haven't yet developed an appreciation for cumbias, so if you have a taste for that genre you may want to add another star to the rating. There are a few Latin jazz-styled tunes ("Uno Anejo") but they're as unimaginative as the rest. I don't hear anything here that would be a contender for a greatest hits album. (DBW)

Demasiado Corazón (Colón: 1998)
This soundtrack for a Mexican soap opera, finally released in the US in late 2000, is Colón's best record in ten years. Colón also acted in the show, and apparently it got him fired up again - he even wrote a few songs and played trombone. The self-penned "Low Rider" puts a killer syncopated piano line and snarling horns against 4/4 drums for one of his most powerful tracks since the early 70s. The title track, which Colón wrote with keyboardist Ennio Gatti, is a mournful social comment recalling the late 70s Colón/Blades glory days (and even uses the police sirens last heard in "Pedro Navaja"). However, his third composition, "Mi Cumbia Bomba," comes off like a calculated attempt to create a hit, with a stale synth groove and excessive nationality-dropping. After "Low Rider," the fifty-five-second "Intermission" may be the purest fun on the record, a playful instrumental with intertwining trombones. Even the less intriguing numbers ("Despertares" by frequent contributor Amilcar Boscan) are fast-paced and clever. When Colón's giving maximum effort he explores material from outside his coterie of writers, and here he piles trombones onto Joan Manuel Serrat's "Toca Madera," get romantic on Spanish heartthrob Eros Ramazzotti's "Yo Sin Tí," and revisits Veloso's "Miel" (more swinging than the sedate 1980 version) - there's also a remake of "Cayo Condón." (DBW)

Tiempos (Blades: 1999)
This gentle, largely acoustic disc is a partial return to form for Blades. The sound is Latin jazz meets New Age, and several cuts are instrumentals (the opening "Mar Del Sur" by guest keyboardist Walter Flores). But it's well rendered and tuneful ("Aguacero"), and Blades returns to thoughtful lyrics of social criticism, of specific ("20 De Diciembre," about the 1989 US invasion of Panama) and general ("Hipocresía") varieties. Still, with Blades writing only eight of the fourteen songs, and not much variety in the arrangements (three tracks do feature a large string section), it's not a major work. If you're looking for dance music, stay a mile away, but if you're looking for something to suit a mellow mood, this could do it. Recorded in Costa Rica. Backing provided by Editus: Ricardo Ramírez (violin and viola), Edín Solís (guitar), Carlos Vargas (percussion). (DBW)

Mundo (Blades: 2002)
Blades brings the folk-jazz of the past two releases into a more forceful, danceable context, and it's a blast. There are a bunch of solid tunes with enthusiastic vocals ("Estampa," "Bochinches") - even (Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays's toothless "First Circle" gets wordless vocal harmonies. The lyrics are standard Blades: character sketches ("Sebastian"), love songs ("Ella") and nostalgia ("Como Nosotros"), all thoughtful and fraught with cosmic implications. The arrangements show tremendous variety - in particular, Blades's use of regional musics is unclichéd, unpretentious and organic: "Danny Boy" (done as a 9/11 tribute) moves so smoothly from Irish folk song to Afro-Cuban son you may not notice it happening until it's over; Argentine group De Boca En Boca adds vocals to "Jiri Son Bali," a traditional song from Malki, and furious Asian rhythms to "El Capitan Y La Sirena." An expanded version of Editus includes the players from Tiempos plus Walter Flores (keys; he also co-wrote two songs), Marco Linares (electric guitar), Marcos Navarro (bass), Carlomagno Araya and Ramses Araya (drums and percussion); Nelson González isn't listed as a band member, but he adds trés to several numbers. (DBW)

El Malo Vol II: Prisioneros Del Mambo (Colón: 2008)
That's gotta be one of the longest gaps between Volume I and Volume II in music history. Anyway, I can't accuse Colón of being on autopilot this time: he wrote or co-wrote most of the songs, covering a range of styles - reggae ("Corazón Partido"), merengue ("La Mala Situación") - and tackling social concerns both serious ("Narcomula") and light ("Amor De Internet"). He also finds room for personal statements, from "El Brujo" - self-promotion recalling the first El Malo - to the scathing "Cuando Me Muera." Most ambitious is the centerpiece "Suite Magía Blanca," which evolves over an eight-minute running time. The thirteen-minute "Hector Lavoe Medley" is the sort of thing that goes over better in concert, but it's still performed with admirable sharpness. So basically everything here is praiseworthy except for the tunes themselves, which are unremittingly dull and bloated - unlike so much of Colón's work, here the melodies are ordinary, the breaks are predictable and the transitions are gimmicky ("Amor De Internet"). Arrangers include Colón, Sheller, Infante, and a few others; there's a long list of musicians prominently featuring Meléndez (trombone, bass, synth), Ricky González (piano), Luisito Quintero and Ray Colón (percussion), Luis Bonilla (trombone), Rubén Rodríguez (bass) and Juan Renta (sax). Available through Colón's own site. (DBW)

Cantares Del Subdesarrollo (Blades: 2009)
Recorded in 2003 but held back while he was serving a term as Panama's Minister of Tourism. A low-key, largely acoustic record that's as close as Blades has come to Nueva Trova. It's nice to have his voice spotlighted ("El Tartamudo") - he overdubbed most of the harmony vocals as well - and I'd always rather hear something underproduced than something overproduced. However, the folksy arrangements have a cookie-cutter sameness, as one track after another relies on tres arpeggios in a two-chord progression, backed by a simple refrain: "Las Calles," "El Reto," and so on ad infinitum. The lyrics too are so simple and straightforward they don't say much ("Símbolo"). This won the Latin Singer-Songwriter Grammy but to my mind it's much less interesting and rewarding than his previous effort: listen to them back-to-back and see if you disagree. (DBW)

Todos Vuelven Live (Blades & Seis del Solar: 2010)
A 2-CD set with all the hits you'd expect, from the Colón era ("Plastico") through his 80s heyday ("Buscando America"; "Decisiones"), with a couple of later tunes ("Amor Y Control"). Also as expected, the band is scrupulously rehearsed and professional (title track). What I wasn't expecting, so late in the game and after such a long layoff, was the attention lavished on each tune: from relative obscurities ("El Padre Antonio Y El Monaguillo Andés") to blockbusters ("Pedro Navaja"), nothing's rushed, as every song is full-length and then some: "Muévete" extends to fifteen minutes, and the intensity level never flags. Among the other pleasures herein: Oscar Hernández hasn't lost a step as a soloist ("Cuentas Del Alma"); Cheo Feliciano guests on "Juan Pachanga." (DBW)

Me voy.

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