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Album review: Ozomatli's 'Fire Away'

April 20, 2010 |  9:42 pm

Ozo Not many L.A. bands can boast of having a piece of the calendar named in their honor. But April 23 was recently designated by the city as Ozomatli Day to give props to the artistically mongrel ensemble that for 15 years has been burning holes in local dance floors – that is, when they’re not playing gala gigs for Barack and Michelle Obama, or touring as official State Department cultural ambassadors, preaching peace, love and kick-butt hip-hop/salsa beats in Myanmar, China and other places where the U.S. needs all the friends it can get.

Ozomatli’s fifth studio release, “Fire Away,” delivers a characteristic 75 mph, 20-car pileup of thunderous brass and irrepressible percussion from the opening track, which demands to know, “Are You Ready?” Yes, we are and so is the band.

The traditional rap against Ozomatli, even among admirers, was that its witty, elbows-out musicianship sometimes got lost in the fury of its kinetic live performances. Less raw and more unpredictable than previous albums, “Fire Away” manages to capture the band’s growing technical maturity as well as its sheer emotive energy – the light and the heat, as it were. The pun-happy “45” delivers a double-barreled blast of ‘60s Stax-style grooves and righteous, preacherly rap. “Gay Vatos In Love,” a homage to Spanish-accented brotherly bonding, mixes and matches a rockabilly vibe with a neo-psychedelic keyboard bridge, like a snappy red velour vest worn over a plaid shirt.

Wil-Dog Abers crafts several excellent bass lines here, and singer-guitarist Raul Pacheco kicks out the jams and challenges his listeners to get active on “Malagasy Shock,” inspired by his own real-life brush with being electrocuted on a waterlogged Madagascar stage.

That sets us up for “Love Comes Down,” one of the loveliest songs the band ever has crafted. It’s only a brief pause before the concluding track, the punk-ranchera “Caballito," but it shows that Ozomatli’s soul-saving musical mission can spring from the tenderest of impulses.

-- Reed Johnson

"Fire Away"
Three stars (out of four)