Since 2013, Los Angeleno quartet La Santa Cecilia have cut a singular path through the weeds that separate Latin music from Anglo pop. They've covered everything from the Beatles "Strawberry Fields Forever" to Ramon Ayala's "Tragos de Amargo Licor." Their own songs can be exercises in pure pleasure or poignant anger. But Amar y Vivir, their debut for producer Sebastián Krys' Rebelon Entertainment label, is unlike anything they've done before. It is an audio-visual album comprised almost exclusively of covers of classic songs -- old and new. It was recorded live to tape on the streets, in plazas, cantinas, and theaters in and around Mexico City.
While the music can be utterly enjoyed on its own, the visuals add context, history, depth, and mystery. The title is a mournful bolero composed by Consuelo Velazquez (author of "Besame Mucho") performed almost straight with rockers Comisario Pantera at an indie rock club. The interplay of an electric guitar's tremolo and Pepe Carlos' requinto urge La Marisol to dig deeper. "Odiame," recorded in a theater, is a classic ranchera featuring Noel Schajris on piano and vocals, and offers a dazzling display of requinto playing by Carlos. On "Comos Dios Manda," the band is supported by the great Mariachi America orchestra. The throaty longing in La Marisol's voice, contrasted with the sweetness in the instrumentation, is breathtaking. The bolero "Mar y Cielo" is striking for its symbolism: Performed in a plaza, it's one of first songs La Marisol ever sang in public. Celebration reins when La Santa Cecilia play the conjunto "Mexicano America" electrified -- in a diner -- with rockabilly act the Rebel Cats. There is a deeply moving tribute to Juan Gabriel as the band performs his oft-covered "Amor Eterno" at night in a plaza where mariachis usually play for tips. As this project unfolds, a story gets told: La Santa Cecilia have their feet in two places: in the culture and history of both Mexico and the U.S. Past and present are inseparable; so are the countries on both sides of the border: Mexico is the indelible space where Latin America meets the Anglo world; it is only together that they are Norteamérica -- their histories, bloodlines, and cultures are now forever entwined. A cover of Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me," cut in the lobby of a hotel, binds tight that notion as proof that Yanqui R&B has influenced Mexican popular music. Chilean singer Mon Laferte guests on a cover of Cafe Tacvba's "Ingrata" from a rooftop; sung by two women, it turns the tables on the male gaze in romantic relationships. A burning read of Violeta Parra's son jarocho classic "Volver a Los 17" rocks in a public street with El Siquisiri before the record closes with Jose Alfredo Jimenez's "En el Ultimo Trago" with diva Eugenia Leon, the greatest living vocalist in Mexico. As duet partners, she and La Marisol are almost staggering. The album concludes here, but this story doesn't end. With Amar y Vivir, La Santa Cecilia offer stunning aural and visual proof that a new chapter is being written every moment.