Julieta Venegas doesn't grab you at first. The born-in-Long Beach/raised-in-Tijuana/now-living-in-Mexico City singer seems—on first listen—like a pretender against the towering talents of fellow Latin alternative divas. She's nowhere close to the beautifully politicized anger of Andrea Echeverri; she never approaches the haunting musings of Ely Guerra. Maybe you can blame that first impression on her loungy, hummable tunes, so poppy that you'd expect Super Estrella to play her music nonstop—not necessarily a good thing.
But like all truly great music, Venegas' creations grow on you—and don't worry, they're not in rotation on Super Estrella. Initially simple sounds reveal themselves as symphonies, each meticulously thought out to the quarter-note. Listen to her voice and you'll rightly decide she sings with her eyes closed, the better to get directly to the loneliest part of the heart. And when you least expect it, she'll ignite with an emotional fury that makes her pretty songs into something elemental.
It's all this that marks Venegas as Latin alternative's reigning reina. She occupies a stratosphere visited by precious few musicians in any language: a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who combines various vibrations to create a style both comfortably familiar and idiosyncratically hers. Appropriate to her background, it's a musical mosaic.
She started her career with legendary ska/punk group Tijuana No! after an adolescence spent mastering the piano and cello at a prestigious San Diego music conservatory. Punk anarchy must have grated against this classical background, though, because Venegas didn't stay with the band long—but before she went solo in 1996, she penned "Pobre de Ti," a furious screed that became a Tijuana No! anthem and is still a staple of all rock en español DJ sets. And Venegas is still as full of fight as ever, even if her war stories attack the oppressive heart instead of horrible societal conditions, even if she's less interested in conflict than commentary.
Her lyrics have a bizarre, almost journalistic quality, a detached ethos that explains precisely what's happening to the song's protagonist, exactly how she—always a she—feels, and what she's going to do—or not do—about it. Maybe that reads rather emotionless—but Venegas' life is in her voice, a stuttering almost whisper interspersed with breathy hiccups; in the larynxes of others, it'd sound forced, but from Venegas, it's wonderful. And where her voice is restrained, her music won't sit still: her chords are jealous, vengeful, sad, ecstatic, confused; she strums, fingers and tickles it all out of fuzz basses, bad-ass accordions, acoustic guitars, heavy electronic piano synths—a whole menagerie of instruments that Shakira wished she knew how to pronounce.
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Venegas has only recorded two albums—1997's Aquí and 2000's Bueninvento, both small treasures worth pirating—but to get the best feel for her music, you have to search for two of the most important albums in the Latin alternative canon: 2000's Amores Perros soundtrack and last year's tribute album to Los Tigres del Norte.
For the first, Venegas composed "Me Van a Matar," an absolutely killer song in which she straps on an acoustic guitar and belts out a lament so raw and scalding you'll need a skin graft afterward. The song—written in the three days after Venegas' husband left her—has become the unofficial anthem of Amores Perros and a particular audience favorite for its brutal tale of betrayed love. But my personal pick is her remake of Los Tigres' "La Jaula de Oro." It's the story of a Mexican immigrant who has achieved success beyond his wildest dreams in the United States, and yet he's miserable. Adopting the persona of the immigrant (and once again armed only with an acoustic), Venegas peels out a dirge so heart-rending that it makes me bawl every time I hear it. I kid you not—I hear my father's life story in her voice.
And therein lies the vitality of Venegas. Yes, maybe others can sing a little prettier, or wield superior musical knowledge, even emote a little better. But few can do it all, and fewer can do it all on the level of Venegas. And even fewer still can make you understand that the personal is really part of the universal. But Julieta Venegas? She does it so simply, elegantly and expertly that you almost wouldn't notice in the first place.
Julieta Venegas performs with Fanatic and Ritual at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600. Sun., 8 p.m. $19.50. All ages.