It’s early 2007 and you’re in a raucous punk rock outfit. Your star is beginning to rise after two blistering self-titled records. A slew of successful international tours are already in your wake. What’s the next logical step? That’s right, hook up with Vince Hidalgo (son of Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo), don some traditional Mexican garb and release a completely unironic mariachi folk record in tandem with your next punk release. As unlikely (and honestly, pretty ridiculous) as this scenario sounds, it’s exactly what Los Angeles natives The Bronx did, and boy howdy has it panned out for them! Mariachi El Bronx began as something of a “diversion” for the band but has arguably gone on to eclipse their already stellar rep within punk circles (with the fourth regular The Bronx record being released last year). This month sees the third eponymous installment of the Mariachi El Bronx side-project and also sees them take things – as hard as it might be to believe – even further away from the sweaty punk sound that built their empire. And it totally works.
Singer Matt Caughthran explained that lyrically, this album saw him revisit some of the darker issues he’s explored on previous releases in a new light and come to terms with his own past. Themes like this are par-for-the-course in punk rock, but as he states, “The thing that [he loves] about the soul of mariachi, and El Bronx, is its feeling of triumph”. The blazing trumpets and cloppy, Central-American percussion of opener New Beat illustrate his point perfectly. With some newfound electro ambiences bubbling just below its unapologetic façade, it’s clear that Mariachi El Bronx have long superseded the in-joke they may or may not have initially intended to be.
Latest single Wildfires acts as a metaphor for Caughthran’s struggles with the ego or “being driven by something that’s stronger and darker than yourself”. The sheer majesty of exultant brass and lilting violin give the narrative added weight, just by how… well… “triumphant” (perfect self-evaluation Matt!) they sound. Sticks and Stones builds slowly and deliberately around the bourgeoning coda “echo all your faith in god son” before High Tide opens like an earnest Broadway number until it explodes into the kind of awesome corn-chip commercial soundtrack you always knew it would. All the while, at no point does any of this feel wrong or contrived. The moonlight bossa-nova of Nothing’s Changed would be schmaltzy and overwrought in the hands of a lesser band, but the spirit embodied in the entire Mariachi El Bronx project manages to strike the perfect balance between homage and authenticity and always leaves you with a smile on your face.
While “restraint” isn’t typically a quality you’d assign to anyone birthed by the L.A. punk scene, the muted detachment on Eternal has a jarringly effective intimacy to it as it exorcises some emotional demons before blasting into the redemptive cinematic bombast such honesty deserves. The jittery, accented waltz Raise The Dead ups the pace to an excited gallop before the synth-punctuated, almost-zydeco of Everything Twice proves to be probably the album’s “poppiest” track with saccharine harmonies darting between the trademark brass and kooky accordion.
Right Between The Eyes is as dark and ominous as the title would suggest with a climactic heft that feels like the rest of the album was building towards it and closer Valya provides a soft, comfortable place for the wild journey that is Mariachi El Bronx III to land.
At a delightfully concise 10 tracks, Mariachi El Bronx III is just enough of a good thing. You legitimately forget the angsty, guitar-driven concrete out of which this Mexican rose grew until the record is over and when it is, it proves to be all the more impressive. There’s an almost mythological duality – kind of like Bruce Wayne/Batman or Clark Kent/Superman – to the idea that a band can cut their teeth in such an aggressively defiant genre as punk then metamorphose into a legitimately great troupe of trumpet-slinging, sombrero-wearing charros. Mariachi El Bronx are touring the U.S., Europe and Australia in the coming months and definitely should not be missed.