Review Summary: Take, take me home.
To those of you who may have thought that Vampire Weekend or the Dirty Projectors were the pinnacle of “genre mashing”, Ry Cooder has a word or two for you. The legendary guitarist has always been known to dabble not only in his signature Americana roots sound, but in Latin and native music as well. San Patricio
takes this to another extreme altogether. Those who grew up in an Irish or Scottish household (or are from Ireland or Scotland) will be well aware of who The Chieftains are. I can’t remember a Christmas or large family get together when these masters of traditional Irish music were played. Ry Cooder enlists the ensemble, along with a plethora of Mexican musicians to craft an album of elegance, beauty, and novelty. San Patricio
follows the story of a group of Irish immigrants who decided to fight for the Mexicans in the American-Mexican War. So by now if you’re thinking that this is going to be a Mariachi band with pan flutes... you’re kinda right.
It’s not so plainly aesthetic though. At first glance, yes the first thing you notice is the mixing of traditional instruments, but looking further, the style mixing is far more intrinsic. Starting off with arpeggio Spanish guitar, opener “La Iguana” slowly shifts into a traditional Irish piece with the hand drum percussion and melodious pan flute. At times the Latin instruments play Irish melodies, and others it’s vice versa. However, the majority of the album creates an atmosphere by joining the two, exploring their similarities, and contrasting their differences. The steady accelerando of “Danza de Concheros” provides the most lively mix of both worlds as the Spanish guitar gives way to layered pan flute and fiddle. As for the vocals, it isn’t until “The Sands of Mexico” almost halfway through the album before we hear the signature dry and charismatic voices of The Chieftains. The song jolts the listener with it’s switch to cut time and Latin vibe as played through traditional Irish instruments. It’s simultaneously bewildering and beautiful.
If this all sounds of a novelty act, that’s because it is. But with the likes of Ry Cooder and The Chieftains, as well as the supporting players, the wealth of talent on San
Patricio gives it a timeless feeling. It’s experimental in a way that’s less pretentious and more interesting. At the same time, this mixing of Irish and Latin music isn’t just simply there for the listener to think it’s neat and then leave it. There’s an inherent beauty in the compositions and arrangements. “A la Orilla de un Palmar” is a graceful ballad that might just be the most beautiful thing you hear this year. Most importantly, San Patricio
works well as an album, instead of a collection of songs. With 19 tracks, the album runs smoothly due to its wonderful pacing. Fast pace jigs far outnumber the ballads, and a general sense of joy runs through the entire disc. It culminates into the ebullient close “Finale”, led by fabulous fiddle work and a propulsive guitar, the song shifts through multiple movements, from Spanish dances to bagpipe fanfare. It closes the album strongly, the way it should be. With such class musicians performing, it doesn’t come as a total surprise that the album works. What may be a surprise is how magnificently the compositional styles intertwine so well.