In 2008, Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers went to Mexico to write and record. They cut an album in eight straight days, with daily video installments of the sessions broadcast on the internet so fans could observe their process. Working with producer and engineer Cliff Norell, who proved more than up to the task, the Peacemakers issued one of their finest offerings in Turbo Ocho. That was three years ago. During that time, the band toured nationally before guitarist Steve Larson left the group. He was replaced by Jim Dalton. Unida Cantina is the first offering with Dalton, but one that reflects that the time away from recording hasn't done Clyne & the Peacemakers any favors. Clyne has always been a disciplined songwriter, known for his tight, hooky Arizona take on heartland rock and smart, often wryly humorous lyrics. In light of this, one can only ask what happened on Unida Cantina? These 13 songs are typically basic in construction, but are all but bereft of fresh lyric or melodic ideas. As a whole, it feels more like an album of John Mellencamp outtakes circa Whenever We Wanted than one of Clyne's. Even his singing voice takes on more of Mellencamp's husky, midwestern nasality. Norell's usually excellent production is thin and reedy here, and the mix is flat, lacking dynamics. The song titles underscore the unimaginative cliches at work in the writing: "All Over the Radio," "Love Is the Road," "Empty Highway," "Go with the Flow," "Just Got High," etc. (In execution they're just as rote.) While there's certainly nothing wrong with writing an album full of anthemic party songs, they need to -- at least -- be smart to get any traction, and none of the aforementioned are; they're simply generic, indistinguishable from a morass of American music that has rightfully faded from memory. Only the mariachi-tinged numbers such as the electrifying waltz "Marie," the acoustic instrumental that is the title track, the reggae-inflected "Today Belongs to the Light," and the utterly catchy closer, "Play On," with its seamless interplay of hooks, guitars, and layered backing vocals, stand out from what is otherwise an uninspired mess. In weighing the good-to-just-plain-bad ratio of these songs, one can only conclude that Clyne & the Peacemakers should have taken more time and come up with better material, or that he has all but lost his way as a songwriter. Here's hoping it's not the latter.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek