Ranchera star Pepe Aguilar is a rocker at heart. Back in his teens, he even fronted a rock back in Mexico before turning his full attention to ranchera music, his path to stardom.
Now, Aguilar is finally getting to walk both paths, simultaneously.
His newly released MTV Unplugged, which debuted at No. 1 on iTunes’ Top Latin Albums chart, has Aguilar navigating many sonic waters, from pop fusion to a bit of ranchera, banda and norteño. The real humph comes from the constant and often very unexpected blending of genres, tempos and instrumentation, accomplished with subtle effectiveness by producer Emmanuel “Meme” del Real, a member of alt group Café Tacuba.
“This got me out of my little, itty bitty comfort zone,” Aguilar told Billboard. “For the first time, I’m totally free.”
Aguilar, who has made a name for himself as a ranchero star who doesn’t belt but instead croons with velvety insistence, shows not just versatility but personality here. He can go in many directions, and still sound convincingly like Pepe Aguilar, not an easy feat in an album that is so very diverse.
An intriguing list of guests, including Miguel Bosé, Natalia Lafourcade, Reyli, Saul Hernandez, Amandititita, Melissa, La Marisoul and children Angela and Leonardo Aguilar help the cause. But it’s a Pepe show.
The fact that Aguilar took the plunge, hand in hand with MTV (who’d never done an Unplugged with a ranchero act before) and with del Real — a king of Latin alt/rock — gives you an idea of what’s to be found here.
Read on for Billboard’s track-by-track review of Pepe Aguilar’s MTV Unplugged.
“Hoy Decidí” feat. Emmanuel “Meme” del Real: Aguilar’s Unplugged begins really unplugged. Meaning, del Real’s solo acoustic guitar, and after a few bars, Aguilar’s voice, exposed and unadorned. It’s most definitely a statement, and a powerful one. Yes, the man can stand alone with a voice that can croon and compel, and the song—about love lost (the kind of thing Aguilar does so well)—is appropriately melancholy, but leaves you wanting more.
“Perdono y Olvido”: Aguilar has taken a track he originally conceived as pop, revved up the tempo and rocked it up with heftier drums, guitars and a retro feel. More uptempo than what we’re used to from Aguilar, it works thanks to a catchy chorus and organic feel.
“Prófugos”: Aguilar’s homage to Gustavo Cerati via “Prófugos,” a track originally recorded by Soda Stereo, is far more stylized, trading the raw power of the original for a dreamier vibe created with light percussion and airy guitars. While Aguilar manages to give it his own imprint, it never strays far from the original. A lovely, faithful rendition.
“Siempre en Mi Mente” feat. Miguel Bosé: Ok, I admit this was never my favorite song, not in its original form and not in the many covers it has undergone. This more rhythmic version (with the Rhodes organ as a nice retro rock touch), sounds rich and soulful and is as good as it’s going to get for me, though I’m still not crazy over the vocal improvising at the end.
Mi Credo: This was the first duet Aguilar ever recorded—with Italian Tizziano Ferro—and it’s fitting that here he takes it solo, rather than having one of his many guests on. This is more vintage Aguilar—slow, romantic, breathy. A strong chorus reminds us why this was such a big hit.
“La Chancla / El Chivo / Puño de Tierra” feat. Ángela y Leonardo Aguilar: This medley gets into nitty gritty ranchero and norteño, first courtesy of Aguilar’s daughter Angela who at just 10 has a killer ranchero voice—powerful beyond her years but with just a touch of sweetness. Then comes 15-year-old Leonardo with a lively conjunto norteño that eventually dissolves into an instrumental breakdown reminiscent of a hoedown. Proud papa Aguilar allows his kids to get their moment under the sun before coming in for some rich harmonization. Yes, there’s some shameless promotion going on, but it sounds great and authentically joyful.
“Entre Dos Ríos”: The Unplugged’s first single starts as one of those beautiful, croony ballads that made Aguilar the name he is now. The signature voice—smooth and velvety (yep, “velvety” is indeed the perfect adjective for this singer) reaches out to touch you in the minute-long slow intro performed only over the solo guitar. And then, it breaks out into a kind of contemporary, medium-tempo polka that’s both melancholy and irresistible. One of my top picks here.
“Miedo” feat. Natalia Lafourcade: The new, pop rendition of another Aguilar signature track is pretty but not a standout in this set.
“Arriba Quemando El Sol”: Tackling a socially-conscious song originally recorded by Chilean social activist Violeta Parra was no easy task. Aguilar does it with a sparse arrangement built on a percussive beat that allows the voice to tell the plight of the poor. This is the album outlier, but it can stand its ground.
“Juan Colorado / Chaparrita” feat. Amandititita: Aguilar brings in a full-fledged banda (the traditional Mexican brass ensemble) for this medley. While “Juan Colorado” didn’t thrill us—too strident for our taste—the saucier “Chaparrita” works in this arrangement. Add to that a rap—courtesy of opinionated cumbia star Amandititita—and you have one of those memorable MTV Unplugged moments.
“Prometiste” feat. Melissa, Angela Aguilar and La Marisoul: Aguilar’s vocal quartet version of one of his big hits from last year is tasteful and understated. Nice vocal blending from three very different female singers.
“El Cascabel” feat. Reyli: Aguilar describes this as a traditional son jarocho performed in a “Meme rocker style.” “El Cascabel” (The Rattle) begins like pensive, acoustic pop then dissolves into a rapid, energetic son jarocho. Reyli, a versatile pop singer and songwriter rises to the task in what becomes a friendly exchange between him and Aguilar with a delicious mix of folk and alt. One of the best songs in the album.
“Viento” feat. Saúl Hernández y Emmanuel “Meme” del Real: Aguilar invited longtime pal Hernandez to reinvent the track Hernandez originally recorded with Caifanes, one of Mexico’s leading rock groups. This reading plays with tempo and moods for the same overall melancholy—yet uplifting—effect. Bringing in Hernandez and del Real together also wraps up the album concept: Pop/rock with a deeply Mexican soul.