At it's heart, punk is a conservative and limiting genre, constraining its practitioners to three chords and an attitude. So what's a punk band to do when they learn how to play their instruments and grow out of their teenage angst? Discharge went metal, Green Day started writing rock operas, and X went country.
L.A. punk band the Bronx decided to go even further south for inspiration. While reworking some of their songs for an acoustic set, they started exploring Mexican folk music. The result is Mariachi El Bronx, eleven songs of punkers playing mariachi. They aren't the first SoCal punk band to look to Mexican music for inspiration; X incorporated south-of-the-border sounds into their songwriting. So did the Minutemen with "Corona," a beautiful song that is hearbreaking both for its lyrics and the fact that it will forever be associated with Jackass. Few bands have gone totally mariachi, however, until now.
The Bronx have ditched their electrified instruments, their sonic assault, and Coughthran's signature howl. They've added guitarron player Vincent Hidalgo (son of David Hidalgo of Los Lobos), who probably helped the band sound more authentic; having the son of one of most admired Mexican-American musicians in the country in your band certainly can't hurt. The instrumentation is excellent, with Joby Ford playing vihuela, Ken Horne on guitar, Brad Magers on trumpet, and Jorma Vik on drums. It's refreshing to hear a different set of instruments from the standard bass-drum-electric guitar, and it pushes the band to expand their range. Like the Pogues, the Bronx use traditional instruments to play traditionally-based songs with a punk edge. The band writes in the spirit of mariachi, but funneled through hardcore punk and outlaw country.
A lot of this album was written while on tour in Europe, and there is a wistful homesickness that comes through in Matt Coughthran's plaintive singing. On "Cell Mates" he sings, "One day I'll be free," and he could either be talking about getting out of prison or getting off tour. "Litigation" starts off with the line, "Darling, I woke up in your warehouse this morning." "Slave Labor" asks, "What good is a home when nobody's home?" before stating, "It feels so good to be gone from my own kind." The lyrics, all in English, manage to invoke the loneliness, nostalgia, and storytelling of mariachi music and corridos without resorting to cliches or phony posturing. There's no mention of the ranchero, and no cries of "ay yai yai," although the band does rock charros in promotional photos.
What does it mean, though, that a bunch of Anglo Angelenos are playing Mexican music? Are they pretending to be something they're not? Or worse, can they be accused of minstrelsy, mocking a culture and painting an unflattering and condescending portrait of it? I don't think so. It's not that much different than bands like Flogging Molly, punks who channel traditional Irish music, and it's much more honest than any white suburban rapper faking at being a gangster. There's no more posturing with Mariachi El Bronx than in the Eagles' faux country, or the Beatles' experimentation with Indian music. The boys in the Bronx seem well aware that they are guests in this musical territory, and they treat it with respect. Their venture into mariachi reminds me of the Clash's forays into reggae, dub, and hip hop. They are trying out different sounds, and looking to other genres for inspiration.
I'm no expert on Mexican folk music, but I'd be willing to believe that the Bronx are pretty mediocre as mariachis. So what? The Yardbirds couldn't play the blues as well as the American bluesmen they idolized, but they still made great music. Likewise, while Mariachi El Bronx may not be on the the same level as authentic mariachi music, it's still pretty damn good. This isn't a joke band, a Mexican version of Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. While not all of the songs work, there are a lot that do, conjuring up a combination of sorrow and joy that is too heartfelt and moving to be a gag. Whether this is a one-off or an ongoing project, Mariachi El Bronx is a welcome change of pace.