Retro Soul: A Review of Freedom is Free

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Review of Freedom is Free, Chicano Batman

I don’t have a problem with the retro-sound.  Some argue that music should have a “newness,” should offer something original.  This is wonderful, but how is this done?  Is it possible to avoid previous echoes?  The 60’s and 70’s sound that so many bands evoke wasn’t itself necessarily “original”—even James Brown, Otis Redding and the Supremes had predecessors (plenty of them).

These matters are worth chewing on regarding Chicano Batman’s new album, Freedom is Free—an album heavily beholden to 60’s and 70’s soul, funk and R&B.  Think Curtis Mayfield.  Think Gil Scott Heron.  Think Sly and the Family Stone.  The band also cites Cream and Santana as major influences.  Of course, the Los Angeles-based band also features a Chicano spin—several songs on Freedom is Free are in Spanish.  New producer Leon Michels of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and Lee Fields fame has, I’m sure, been a major influence on this album, along with Chicano Batman’s recent touring stints with Jack White and Alabama Shakes.  If you want an apprenticeship in a soulful sound, is there a better place to start?

This is somewhat of a departure from their earlier sound, which was perhaps a bit less rhythmic and certainly not nearly as pulsating or memorable.  Freedom is Free is Chicano Batman’s best work to date, and one of the catchiest albums of the year.  For me it begins with Bardo Martinez’s work on the organ and his malleable lead vocals which often skate into the falsetto range.  Carlos Arevalo’s clean guitar licks are a piercing compliment on most tracks.  The fuzzy organ sound, however, is the substratum upon which Chicano Batman builds their jams. 

Yet, most of the songs on Freedom is Free aren’t mere party grooves.  Like 70’s era Marvin Gaye tunes, many of Chicano Batman’s songs offer a timely social awareness.   “La Jura” is about police brutality.  The title track offers the listener a universal appeal to democratic values, without standing excessively holier than thou—a tough balance to strike.  Most notable is “The Taker Story,” completely different than any other track on this album—apparently based in part on Ishmael by Daniel Quinn.  This is the Gil Scott Heron/Dr. John-inflected side of Chicano Batman—with Martinez talk-singing throughout the song about the sins of man along the way detailing Biblical roots (Cain and Abel), slavery, genocide and a philosophical pondering of the roots of “taking.”  “Take the dagger out your mind/Take the Taker out your soul,” Martinez sings.  Yet, given the biological/historical underpinnings detailed in the song we wonder if this is possible.  It’s a tremendous cut—part op-ed, but highly tuneful and wholly unforgettable.     

On a more intimate scale are songs like “Friendship (Is A Small Boat In A Storm),” “Run,” and “Jealousy.”  These three songs make up the emotional/introspective core of Freedom is Free.  “Run,” especially heavy on the organ, gives voice to the notion that the more you move the better you feel—spiritually, psychologically and otherwise.  Hopefully Nike or New Balance refrain from snapping it up for a future television spot.  “Jealousy,” like the aforementioned “The Taker Song,” details a destructive emotion and attempts to problem-solve.  Nature in the form of a hawk and a wolf seem to point to a more productive approach. 

“Friendship (Is A Small Boat In A Storm),” the current single on rotation, is the catchiest song on the album as well as the most textured sonically thanks to a cameo by Mariachi Flor de Toloache on background vocals.  Like “Run” and “Jealousy,” Friendship” is about adjusting internally to cope with external strife.  Both an ode to friendship and a song about its limitations, “Friendship” uses the extended metaphor of the boat in a storm to pursue the notion that though amity offers temporary shelter, it is only that—impermanent.  In a sense “Friendship” is the companion song to the 70’s Motown hit “Smiling Faces” by The Undisputed Truth and others.

Overall Freedom is Free is one of the best albums of 2017 thus far.  Not only is the album timely and seamless (without any major clunkers—a rarity these days), but the sound that Chicano Batman develops on this album feels timeless and has massive cross-over appeal.  This album will be a hit for them for sure, and one which will mark them as one of the top retro-soul bands currently going.  They deserve it.

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About Author

Nathan Leslie’s nine books of fiction include Root and ShootSibs, and Drivers.  He is also the author of The Tall Tale of Tommy Twice, a novel, and Night Sweat, a poetry collection.  His work has appeared in hundreds of literary magazines including BoulevardShenandoahNorth American Review, and Cimarron Review. Nathan was series editor for The Best of the Web anthology 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books) and edited fiction for Pedestal Magazine for many years.  He is currently interviews editor at Prick of the Spindle and writes a monthly music column for Atticus Review.  His work appears in Best Small Fictions 2016.  Check him out on Twitter and Facebook as well as at www.nathanleslie.com.  

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