“La Jura,” the first song I heard off of Freedom is Free after casually clicking on Chicano Batman’s NPR Tiny Desk performance while waiting for a coffee at Waterfront station is remarkable for two reasons.
The first is that it’s in Spanish. And the second is that it follows a narrative which, had it been delivered in English, wouldn’t play nearly as well. Over a jazzy R&B guitar and keyboard riff, Bardo Martinez sings about the shooting of a friend by police.
“The other night was / a very terrible night. / They shot a friend of mine / in a street near here. / They abandoned him. / A lifeless object next to the corner. / I don’t understand why. Those that ought to protect do the opposite, they kill innocents.”
Here’s the thing, though. As heartbreaking as the song’s content might be, there is no way you won’t at least swing your hips to this keyboard-driven slow jam. And the organ solo at the two-minute mark showcases one of the most quickly uplifting keyboard riffs in recent memory.
That’s Chicano Batman’s magic. Whereas some indie acts might incorporate soul or R&B or Mexican ballads with straightforward rock or pop, Chicano Batman does the opposite, incorporating sweetly accessible melodies into what’s essentially a Mexican folk-tinged fusion R&B record. “Run” switches tacks halfway through and effortlessly jumps from a slow-jam show tune to a samba. The track takes in elements of Latin music so effectively that listeners will easily be able to dance a samba without having ever seen the dance.
There are some purely instrumental tracks, like “Right off the Back” and “Area C” whose purpose it seems to be to round out the record, and given the breadth of Chicano Batman’s exploration throughout Freedom, these instrumental tracks provide a buffer for the more narrative-packed content on the album.
Tracks like “Freedom is Free” are uniquely bittersweet funk numbers that would be just at home at a summer barbeque as they would be accompanying any commute. If there’s one thing that’s evident over most of Freedom is Free it’s the flexibility of the sometimes more soulful, sometimes more Mexican-derived instrumentals and vocals which always blend into a cohesive project.
“Flecha al Sol,” another of the Spanish-language tracks on the record, manages to provide one of the record’s most memorable vocal performances because it follows its own instrumental lead in such a way that it becomes another instrument, supporting the keyboards throughout the cheerful track.
“Jealousy” on the other hand, is more lyrically inventive (possibly because of the common language it’s written in) and presents listeners with a heartfelt take on love without turning to clichés or even the modern-day ballad structure that seems inescapable when finding narratively sentimental tracks.
Album closer “Area C” gives listeners a break with smooth classical guitar lines and strings that emulate ambient music. Perhaps less memorable than the other tracks on the record, it closes off Freedom is Free with a tranquility that’s well-received after such a lively record.