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Tuesday Reviewsday: Shakira, Malawi Mouse Boys, Juanes and The Baseball Project

Shakira

Marc Baptiste/Shakira.com

Shakira just put out an album for the first time in four years.

Shakira, mouse-eating musicians, a Latin super star and an album all about baseball.

That's right, it's time for Tuesday Reviewsday. Justino Aguila, Associate Editor of Latin at Billboard magazine, and music critic Steve Hochman join A Martinez in the studio this week.

Justino Aguila's picks:

Artist: Shakira
Album: Shakira
Songs we played: Empire
Nunca Me Acuerdo de Olvidarte
Summary: Shakira is back with her tenth album, and her single "Can't Remember to Forget You," featuring Rihanna, has been heard around the world and the video has received over 200 million clicks.

VIDEO: "Can't Remember to Forget You"

Shakira's single "Can't Remember to Forget You," featuring Rihanna, also has been receiving plenty of radio airplay, but the Spanish version of the song, "Nunca Me Acuerdo de Olvidarte," also shines as Shakira (without Rihanna) provides a pop anthem that plays into her style of music, which includes a bilingual audience that has helped make the entertainer a major star. "Empire" highlights Shakira's strong vocal command in a rock ballad that illustrates the singer's ability to give her music depth in a way that grows by the moment thanks to the composition, lyrics and a vibrant song. 

This is her first album after having a baby and her first album in four years. It's packaged with some of the iconic pop singer's trademarks: strong musical orchestrations, collaborations and a powerful voice. Shakira, whose first major label debut was "Pies Descalzos" (1996), has managed to spread her brand of music around the world with cool pop melodies and catchy hooks wrapped around a persona. All have helped her develop a major fan base. 

But that's not all. We also have a new album from Colombian superstar - Juanes.

Artist: Juanes
Album: Loco de Amor
Songs we played:  La Luz 
La Verdad
Summary: Colombian singer/songwriter Juanes has made it no secret that his newest album, "Loco de Amor" is completely different from anything he's done in the past. The album's new vibe blends Juanes' own style with a newer sound that's pop, rock and a little retro. If you're a Juanes fan from back in the day, the album might take some getting used to, but the music ultimately grabs and moves you. The single "La Luz," for example, marries Colombian cumbia with electronic dance music for a club-friendly composition that's been getting major attention, which is much deserved. However, don't think that his signature sound is at all lost on the new album. It's satisfying to hear the super star performing music such as "La Verdad," which really drives a pop/rock sentimentality in a song about searching for truth in a relationship. And for those long time fans of the artist, the song has a familiar old-school sound. Juanes teams up with British producer Steve Lillywhite who has worked with everyone from the Rolling Stones to U2. Emmanuel "Meme" Del Real, a member of Mexico's Café Tacuba, is also an associate producer. 

Steve Hochman's picks:

Artist: Malawi Mouse Boys
Album: Dirt is Good
Songs we played:  Ndakhumudwa (You Betrayed Me)
Zochita Zanu (Your Deeds)
Summary: No, these aren't some gene-spliced hybrids or East African superheroes. We've talked about the Mouse Boys before, with their first album, "He Is #1," from two years ago. Their name comes from the fact that they were discovered selling roasted rodents on sticks, a favored local snack, on the road side in Malawi. San Francisco-based producer Ian Brennan (Tinariwen, Lucinda Williams) stumbled upon them on a trip there... and while we're not sure if he bought any mouse snacks, he did buy into the music that they were making during their breaks from selling the mice. And that's the music that they released in their joyous debut. They don't sing about mice, but about Jesus - in spirited, rustic, rough-hewn, road-side style that Brennan captured perfectly. It was the first album in their language, Chichewa, ever released internationally and it found welcoming ears around the world, leading to an invitation to perform at last summer's WOMAD festival in England. Not only was it their first time on a plane and first time out of Malawi, but it was their first time ever performing on a stage with amplification. They rose to the occasion, turning into instant rock stars.

You can hear some of that confidence and power in the follow-up, "Dirt is Good." Not that you'll think they've fallen under the sway of Max Martin or anything, but there's a stronger rhythmic element to this album, with spartan percussion and crisper playing in the guitars. The opening "Ndakhumudwa (You Betrayed Me)" could almost be taken for reggae, though the vocal harmonies are distinctly African. And on two tracks, including "Zochita Zanu (Your Deeds)," they add amplification, though highly distorted with the guitar being played through a tiny battery-powered amp. It's still gospel, and it's still very much music from their lives, reflecting such sorrows as the death of guitarist Alfred Gavana's father (which happened while they were in England) and the very hard times amid food shortages and medical crises that are part of their country's daily life. But it's the joy of their faith, the joy of the making of music that comes through strongest even if you don't understand the language.

Let's take a trip now to the United States where there's a group singing about one of the nation's favorite past times... baseball.

Artist: The Baseball Project
Album: 3rd
Songs we played:  13
They Played Baseball
Summary: It's the most wonderful time of the year! That's right - spring training is in full swing and the baseball season's opening day is right around the corner. And in recent years a new element has joined the vaunted litany of baseball traditions: the band the "The Baseball Project" - an unlikely alt-rock supergroup including Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate and a long solo career, Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows and latter-day R.E.M., with drummer Linda Pitmon and R.E.M. co-founders Peter Buck and Mike Mills - are doing original baseball-themed material.

Two previous albums established the band's approach. It's a celebration of all things baseball, though not necessarily rah-rah stuff. With Wynn (transplanted from L.A. to New York and now a Yankees fan) and McCaughey (go Giants!) as the main songwriters, it gets deep into the baseball psyche, sometimes even into the dark side by talking about the scalawags and scoundrels, the moments of infamy and ignominy and missed chances, lovable losers and some unloveable winners as well.

It's smart, witty, knowledgable, colorful and lively… and it rocks. But above all it's about a true, deep, passionate love for all things baseball. And now the new "3rd" - as in "rounding 3rd and heading home" - ups the ante. The boisterous, power-blues "Hola America" is a Cuban exile's journey to the World Series. "From Nails to Thumbtacks" follows Lenny "Nails" Dykstra from his star years with the Mets and Phillies through his prison time for financial fraud. "They Don't Know Henry" chronicles the combination of determination and talent that made Hank Aaron, well, Hank Aaron. "Pasqual on the Perimeter," sung by Pitmon (a Twins fan) recounts the time Braves pitcher Pasqual Perez couldn't find his way to the ballpark.

It's hard to single out highlights, but the top of the web jems may be Wynn's "13," a devastating broadside at Alex Rodriguez himself. It's a true folk song for the modern sports age. But the bottom line of all this is summed up in McCaughey's "They Played Baseball," a song about the litany of baseball's boozers and juicers, racists and blowhards, with the joyful conclusion that no matter what, we cheered for them, even loved them, simply because they were part of the game. And to finish it off, the album ends with a hot-rodded run of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Hey, this is rah-rah stuff after all. 


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