The Grammy-nominated, critically acclaimed across the board, thoroughly entertaining Sur o No Sur couldn't have been an easy album for Kevin Johansen + the Nada to follow up when they hit the studio to record what would become City Zen. That album was an unwieldy epic, spanning a whopping 20 tracks, all of them unique and inspired -- not unlike Café Tacuba's similarly hard-to-top Re in nature if not style, if you want to draw comparisons. So what did Johansen do? He recorded a relatively modest album, one that clocks in at only 12 tracks in 47 minutes -- a little more than half of what he'd offered last time. And too, he tamed his eclecticism and eccentricity a bit. He still switches with ease between English, Spanish, and Spanglish, and he's still a witty songwriter with a talented band backing him, not to mention excellent production, which brings to the surface all those little, fascinating nuances his band is well known for. But all that granted, City Zen is indeed modest relative to Sur o No Sur. This may disappoint some return listeners looking for another tour de force, but really, there's not much to be disappointed about here. City Zen is an excellent album, leaps and bounds more interesting than a large percentage of the major-label Latin music out there circa 2005. An all-acoustic affair that toys with different Latin rhythms and instruments but at its core is essentially Spanglish folk-pop, it harbors a small handful of gems, namely the first several songs -- "Desde que Te Perdí," "El Palomo," "Oops," "No Voy a Ser Yo," and "La Falta de San Andrés" -- as well as the touching album-closer, "Everything Is (Falling into Place)." And while some of the English-language songs filling the latter half of the album don't quite have the spark that makes the opening run of Spanish-language ones such gems (the language difference perhaps?), they're still fun, playful, and creative songs that are hard not to like. If City Zen seems too modest in the end, that's only because it follows such an accomplishment and because the expectations were so high. Taken on its own, however, it's an enjoyable understatement that affirms Johansen's talents and should keep the boatloads of acclaim headed straight in his direction.
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AllMusic Review by Jason Birchmeier