Saturday, May 17, 2014

JOE KING CARRASCO: Still the King Of Tex-Mex Rockamole!


STILL the King Of Tex-Mex Rockamole!

SPAZ reviews a handful of recent albums from the man, the myth, the gringo - Joe King Carrasco!

     These days, its easy to travel the world for free and never leave the comfort of your home.  All you need to do is hop on your PC, notebook, tablet/iPad or android/iPhone and you are just a few clicks away from paradise.  But in 1981, when I wasn't even out of high school, the internet was non-existent so going somewhere exotic on a whim was not as easy. You'd have to scour the channels on your TV, read an issue of National Geographic or borrow a book from the library in order to experience something 'worldly' at home. As an alternative, you could just spend a whole lot of money and travel, but who wants to do that?

     Or you could do what I did - listen to music!  My eyes and ears were big, but my LP funds were small, so I didn't get into as much 'world music' as I would have preferred.  Instead, I kept buying Pop, Punk, New Wave and Power Pop albums, always searching for something new and exciting that would whisk me off to lands and lifestyles that seemed foreign to me.  There were many bands that introduced me to styles of music that I may not have explored otherwise.  The first two that spring to mind are Kid Creole & The Coconuts (a mixture of Pop, New Wave, Disco, Latin Jazz, Big Band, Salsa, etc) and Joe King Carrasco & The Crowns, the best Tex-Mex band since ? & The Mysterians and The Sir Douglas Quintet.  While Tex-Mex may not have been 'exotic' to some people, it certainly was for a kid who went from The Beatles and Monkees to The Osmonds to Queen to Punk Rock/New Wave (in that order).  My interest was never limited and I heard much more than the aforementioned bands, but I never had the funds when I was younger and relied on allowances or birthday/Christmas money to buy new things. But when I got my first job at 16 in '79, all my money went to records...

     Once I got turned on to Punk/New Wave, I learned very quickly that Stiff Records was a label to trust.  So, if it had the Stiff logo, then I usually bought it. In 1980, Joe King Carrasco & The Crowns released their debut album on Stiff Records.  Needless to say, I bought it and I instantly loved this fun, rollicking mixture of  basic Rock 'n' Roll and traditional music from Mexico, which I learned was called Tex-Mex - although Joe referred to it as Nuevo Wavo! The beauty in Joe's music was his ability to strip everything down to it's basic Rock 'n' Roll roots, add a great tune, throw a poncho and sombrero on it all and be the life of the party. In fact, he didn't have to go to the party - the party came to him! I could go on and on about each of his early albums, but I'll save that for another time.  However, I will say this: I still add tracks from those JKC & The Crowns albums on mixes that I make to play in my car or give to other people. The music still sounds as fresh and energetic as the day they were released - not bad for albums that are 30+ years old!  And, yes, Michael Jackson did sing back-up on "Don't Let A Woman Make A Fool Out Of You," one of the most criminally ignored singles/shoulda-been-hits of the decade...

     In my busy world of trying to grow up and failing miserably, I lost track of what Joe was up to through the '90s.  I got reacquainted with his music in the early part of the millennium, even asking him to submit a song to the tsunami disaster relief CD I helped put together (Of Hands And Hearts).  But as the years dragged on, I became embroiled in all that 'growing up' nonsense again and it distracted me for a little while.  But once I realized that I'd never be able to grow up, I got myself back on my burro and started to seek out Joe's music again.  What I found was an artist who was still creating new music that excited me just as much as when I first heard him 34 years ago! So, I thought I'd give you a short run down of these recent albums in hopes of rekindling YOUR passion for his music... or maybe introducing you to the man for the very first time!

Originally recorded in 1990, this album remained in the vaults until it was rescued, dusted off, knocked into shape and finally released in 2011. For some of these songs to remain unreleased for that long was a shame since there are many absolute gems here. Perhaps the least Tex-Mex album in his catalog, Tattoo Laredo is much closer to a lost Power Pop platter that will entice anyone who loves great hooks.  But don't get me wrong - Joe wrote plenty of great hooks back in the day, but this album is a must-have for guitar Pop fans. "Steal Your Love," "Care To Explain," and "Hurts To Hurt" are the most immediate tracks here, but not a stinker in the bunch. This isn't Power Pop of the '80s though - it has a lot more crunch and bite. It may not be hi-fidelity, but it sounds great and has an edge to it.


Recorded in 1991, Vamos A Get Down suffered the same fate as Tattoo Laredo, languishing in the vault for 20 years before Joe cleaned it up and released it.  For this album, Joe stepped back into the Tex-Mix ring but added other Latin influences as well as some Soul to the mix (Tex-Mix?). Again, there are some great tunes here - "Noche" has a great groove with some slightly haunting keyboards guiding it through the house of fun.  "El Arroyo" is fantastic and has a few great hooks to hang your sombrero on. 'Easy Going" has a reggae groove and a chorus that would have fit on any of his '80s albums. "That's What She Said" and "Bump And Run" are funky as hell. "Looking For A Party" and "Hurricane" are great Rock 'n' Roll tunes.  Only eight songs, Vamos A Get Down is more fun than most parties you'll attend this year! Oddly enough, while this album travels a completely different road than the Power Poppy Tattoo Laredo, there are moments when Joe's vocals sound remarkably like The Plimsouls' Peter Case!


Joe reunited with the original Crowns - Kris Cummings, Mike Navarro and Brad Kizer - for an anniversary tour in 2011.  They clicked so well together that they went back into the studio and recorded a brand new album released the following year! For anyone that loved Joe's Stiff, Hannibal and MCA albums will love this return to the classic Tex-Mex sound of old. Perhaps a little more raw, production-wise, Que Wow is exactly what you'd want JKC & The Crowns to sound like in 2012 - timeless.  It's great to hear Cummings on backing vocals again, not to mention her 'roller rink' keyboards!  Kizer and Navarro keep the party pumping while Joe serves as the master of ceremonies.  As Joe is want to do, he does revisit some older material here, but nothing that the Crowns released - "Bandido Rock" and "Pachuco Hop" were originally on Bandido Rock, his first solo album after the Crowns disbanded.  While all the songs are great, there are a few tracks that don't build up the same amount of steam as the others ("Rosa La Famosa" to name one), but why complain when the rest of the album is worth every dime you spend. It's rather interesting, too, to hear him use some of the same lyrics on both "Nacho Daddy" and the album's title track.  All in all, it sound like they had a great time together and made a reunion album that doesn't tarnish their catalog in the slightest.  How often can you say that?


Perhaps inspired by his reunion with The Crowns, Joe hooked up with his old El Molino mates Ernie Durawa and Speedy Sparks (along with an appearance from Tex-Mex legend Augie Meyers)  in 2012 and recorded Tlaquepaque, released the following year. Nearly 40 years after making his first studio recordings, Joe was still on top of his game with this album.  Others may disagree, but I believe that Joe is at his finest when he channels the sounds and vibes of early Rock 'n' Roll with a healthy side of salsa - just listen to "Anna," "Ayudame Lupe," "Por Que," and "Make Believe Kisses" for proof.  These are just great songs, period.  The title track is amazingly catchy as well - one of those songs you find yourself singing out loud while doing chores or shopping at Target (no, this didn't happen to me.  OK, yes it did!). While I don't feel "I Saw My Baby" or the re-recorded "Buena" live up to the quality of the rest of the album, they certainly aren't throwaways. Yet another fine album to add to his catalog and one that you really need to hear!


Released in 2014, Rucca finds Joe recording with El Molino again. And yes, folks, another great album... that makes five highly recommended studio albums released in a row - most artists can't even release five great songs in a row, let alone albums!  What is it about Joe's music that draws me in?  Believe it or not, I've pondered this thought quite often and the only thing I can really think of is that it is honest, heartfelt and hook laden. His music is timeless. Rucca sounds modern yet the songs could have come straight out of the late '50s right down to the arrangements (gotta love that sax).  If George Lucas had made a movie called Mexican American Graffiti, JKC Y El Molino could have appeared in the film instead of Flash Cadillac & The Continental Kids (how's that for a confusing pop culture reference, folks?). Oh, about the album... This version of "Chihuahua" is superb. "I Wanna Be Loved" and "Better Leave A Message" are great Rock 'n' Roll tunes. The re-recording of "On Top Of A Teardrop" betters the decade old version ten-fold. "To Be Loved" and "Because A Woman" are touching '50s influenced ballads. Though he only recorded it two years ago with The Crowns, this version of "Nacho Daddy" is the keeper.  The only song that hasn't sunk in yet is "Tamale Christmas," but I won't complain.  Maybe I'll dig it when Autumn lands on my doorstep!  So, to make a long story short - the album is a winner that I'll keep spinning for quite some time!

     I can't wait to hear what Joe does next!

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