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Mexican alt-rockers Zoe are tearing down musical borders

May 3, 2009 |  9:03 am

If you cross the U.S.-Mexico border with any regularity, you may have experienced an occasional cultural time-warp effect. Visitors who stumble upon a ruined Aztec pyramid in the center of Mexico City realize that the history of the Western Hemisphere didn't start at Plymouth Rock. And Mexicans visiting California, Texas and other border states are likely to discover that certain Mexican rock bands who are superstars back home barely register on the pop-culture radar across la frontera.

Until recently, that's been the case with Zoé, the 14-year-old Mexican quintet that is among the most consistently intelligent and conceptually ambitious of alternative rock en español bands. But the band's current 12-date U.S. tour, its biggest so far, may bring them to a new, deservedly higher level of stateside recognition.


SoCal audiences recently had two major opportunities to catch the band in live performance: last Sunday (April 28)  at the Grove in Anaheim and four days earlier at Crazy Horse in the San Gabriel Valley. I was among the reported 1,700 souls at the band's Orange County gig, a stripped-down version of the concept-driven pyrotechnic showcases that the band stages in larger Mexican venues.

Actually, the no-frills production allowed Zoé's real assets to come through free of distractions: sophisticated lyrics; tautly arranged, lushly textured layerings of keyboards, guitar and bass; and a brooding, charismatic intensity.

It's common for Anglo critics groping for comparisons to cite Britain's Stone Roses as Zoé's main pop-rock progenitors. You just as easily could mention The Smiths, The Cure, Radiohead and Echo and the Bunnymen, at which point you may as well throw in The Doors, rock's ur-purveyors of dark eroticism and doom-laden prophesies.

But to its credit Zoé has cultivated an identity, if not entirely a sound, that doesn't attempt to piggy-back on Anglo-American influences. Apart from a stray song title ("Love," "Razor Blade") or lyric here and there, the group has steadfastly resisted singing in English, thereby avoiding the fate of other Latin bands and pop artists who've traded a distinctive, Spanish-language style for cheesy mimicry.

In lead vocalist and sometime-guitarist León Larregui, the band has a front man capable of elevating commonplace pop emotions and imbuing them with a vaguely metaphysical sheen. On songs such as "Solo," which the band performed last Sunday, his agonized reflections on solitude and separation from a lover triggered deeper intimations of mortality. "Corazón Atómico" (Atomic Heart) achieves the same graceful balance of beauty and mournfulness.

And while the self-effacing Larregui is no lizard king, he often comes across as a sensual poet-rocker, channeling cosmic vibes, in the mode of Jim Morrison or John Lennon. ("Love," with its genial harmonies and utopian refrain, propelled by Rodrigo Guardiola's no-rolls drumming, plays like an homage to the Sgt. Pepper-era Fab Four.)

In concert, Zoé unleashed its excellent guitarist Sergio Acosta on numbers such as the title tune of its latest release, "Reptilectric," which was produced by Phill Vinall and reportedly recorded in Texas and mixed in Los Angeles. The title alludes to an electrified Quetzalcóatl, the famous plumed serpent worshipped by the Aztecs at their pyramid temples. The album's cover shows the band members wandering a beach with pyramid cones covering their heads, as if they were aliens scanning for signs of intelligent life and receiving extraterrestrial signals. "I am a frequency, with a million megahertz," Larregui sings on "Ultimos Dias" (Last Days).

As several of the album's song titles suggest -- "Neandertal," "Ultimos Dias," "Fantasma" (Ghost), "Babilonia" -- "Reptilectric" is, on one level, a sustained, hook-filled reflection on the prospects of the human race. As you might expect from this band, the outlook isn't exactly rosy. Jesús Báez's spooky keyboard work has never been used to better effect, and Larregui's vocals seldom have sounded more haunted and foreboding. 

But if the forecast for homo sapiens is mixed, at best, the future looks filled with possibility for this thoughtful and compelling Mexican band.

-- Reed Johnson in Los Angeles

Photo: EMI Televisa Music