Some 40 years ago, Cuba's octave-hopping queen of melodrama, Xiomara Alfaro, poured her persona so thoroughly into the torch song "Siboney" it became impossible to imagine another soul attempting a straight-faced rendition of the same. But Raúl Malo of the Mavericks matches Alfaro's sun-extinguishing angst, and the all-star ensemble backing him tosses in a heart-bursting kettledrum on the opening salvo of Los Super Seven's Canto. This is the way to do nostalgia right. Producer Steve Berlin of Los Lobos holds classic Latin music at a distance that maintains the emotional impact while tilting the songs off balance just enough to keep them fresh. The vocal arrangements featuring eight top Latin singers are consistent with the spirit of the old material, though they're treated with state-of-the-art reverb that helps refract the passion. It's as if we're bystanders twice removed from the subject of the songs and are hearing them as they bounce off the forehead of the intended listener. The digital crispness of the recording adds another layer to the disembodied aspect of the voices.
The instrumental arrangements are similarly odd. Again it's partly a clever exploitation of modern sound-reproduction technology, which envelops the horns, guitars, and percussion in a background of drop-dead silence. It's also the spacey organ line warbling behind César Rosas on "El Pescador" or the remote distorted electric guitar solo on "Me Voy Pa'l Pueblo" that's in discord with the breezy danzón flavor of a song that otherwise could have been extracted from Orquesta Aragon's mid-'50s repertoire. "Calle Dieciséis" sounds like a happy outtake from Mark Ribot's last phony-Cubans disc of scrambled son. Even Canto's programming is witty. The murderously intense "Compay Gato," in which the only English phrase is a snarled "I will kill him," is immediately followed by Caetano Veloso's lovely, arid "Qualquer Coisa." The modernism of the next song, David Hidalgo's scorching "Teresa," with its nonstop neo-salsa rhythmic push, snaps your neck in yet another direction. If there's anything like a misstep, it's concluding this bold collection with a sugary rerecording of Veloso's "Baby," but for all I know, that move also was slyly calculated.
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Despite the innovative approach to mainly classic material, Canto is clearly intended to appeal to the same type of nostalgia-hungry audience that ate up the Buena Vista Social Club series of recordings. A television program about the making of Canto is planned, along with VHS and DVD versions. Los Super Seven's first eponymous release won a Grammy Award in 1998 for its assemblage of Mexican and Tejano stars. This far more ambitious recording shows increased marketing smarts, too.