First Listen: Michael Ramos And Charanga Cakewalk, 'El Brown Recluse'

El Brown Recluse is Michael Ramos' most fully realized expression of the Charanga Cakewalk concept he's been developing for half a dozen years. i i

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El Brown Recluse is Michael Ramos' most fully realized expression of the Charanga Cakewalk concept he's been developing for half a dozen years.

Courtesy of the artist
El Brown Recluse is Michael Ramos' most fully realized expression of the Charanga Cakewalk concept he's been developing for half a dozen years.

El Brown Recluse is Michael Ramos' most fully realized expression of the Charanga Cakewalk concept he's been developing for half a dozen years.

Courtesy of the artist

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El Brown Recluse is Michael Ramos' most fully realized expression of the Charanga Cakewalk concept he's been developing for half a dozen years. While that idea is now three albums old, he had me at 2006's Chicano Zen, which was not merely an album title, but something to aspire to. Chicano lounge, cumbia downtempo, accordion chillout — these unlikely cultural mash-ups don't do the music justice. There are elements of each and much more in Ramos' vision.

The first track from El Brown Recluse offers a glimpse into the expanse of Ramos' musical mission: It's layered with keyboards and cool electronica sounds over the kind of intricate guitar picking you'd expect from a seasoned sideman like Ramos, who has worked with John Mellencamp, Patty Griffin, Los Lonely Boys, Robert Plant and others. It offers a world where expectations are left at the door and the groove is king. By the second track, we're into the musical soul of the album, with a rocking cumbia rhythm and bits of electronica. And then there's the accordion.

One summer during my second year of high school in the late 1970s, I played a series of gigs with an uncle's conjunto band, playing drums in bars and cantinas in rural northern California. Sitting back there watching my tio and his bandmates work the crowd, I developed a deep appreciation for the rock 'n' roll spirit of the accordion: It could be as gritty as a John Lee Hooker guitar riff. The long-forgotten players with whom I played would double the melody and then fly off on solos that reminded me of Duane Allman's work on the Allman Brothers albums I was listening to at the time. And the nasal two-part vocals were identical to the two-part harmonies I'd heard from Mick and Keith in the "Exile on Main Street" era.

Ramos comes from a part of the country that takes its accordions seriously. All of the major Tex Mex conjunto accordion masters come from the American Southwest, and Ramos' precise, melodic deep grooves reflect that influence. I especially like it when he sonically dresses up the accordion so that it retains a clipped, staccato technique while still sounding very 21st-century.

The new album's title, El Brown Recluse, doubles as the name of Ramos' home studio. For this record, he had other Austin-based musicians drop by to add their own touches to his music, including DJs Geko Turner and Brian Ramos (of Master Blaster Sound System) and the brilliant singer-songwriter David Garza. The result, like the best conjunto music, is all about the dance floor, but the ballroom in this case is full of cowboy boots and skinny jeans. I bet my long-deceased uncle and his musical compadres would have had a blast hanging out with Michael Ramos and Charanga Cakewalk.

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