About a year-and-a-half ago, I recommended Very Be Careful for fans of Alejo “El Negro Grande” Duran, Alfredo Gutierrez and Funkadelic. Frankly, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. The Los Angeles-based group unmistakably plays vallenato, a Columbian music style closely related to cumbia. And the first two aforementioned artists are major influences in vallenato. But to say the group plays for fans of the master vallenateros also suggests the group plays for the music’s traditional crowd. And that is far from the case. In fact, they’re actually playing for the Funkadelic freaks. And the Prong freaks. And the Gregory Isaacs freaks. And especially the Stevie B freaks that were junior-high slow dancing to “Spring Love” both back in the day and just the other day. This point is made clear on the group’s sixth album, Escape Room. Even without any prior knowledge of vallenato, a quick listen reveals the record’s purpose: to move a freak’s body.
Escape Room follows the pattern of most previous Very Be Careful records: raw recordings, original material mixed with a handful of covers and a variety of beats. The form of the music sounds traditional. The quintet is structured in a familiar format where the accordion and vocals provide the melody, three types of percussion provide the rhythmic base and the bass glues everything together. And the band’s material adheres to vallenato’s four principle rhythms (both in the music and the lyrics): son, paseo, merengue and puya. However, Very Be Careful’s playing is what sets the group apart from most others playing this music. The band performs with an unhinged sense of abandon like a well-lubricated party-goer, not a professional married to tradition and form. And like all the aforementioned non-vallenato artists, the group plays music with a core value of mass body appeal. Escape Room captures these qualities.
The lead “single” (or, the track circulating for free d/l) “La Furgoneta” and album opener chugs along with a heavy breath, as if the album started mid-set during a particularly sweaty performance. Bassist and co-founder Arturo Guzman swings drunkenly on the following “La Abeja” as his vocalist-accordionist-brother-co-founder Ricardo belts out his heartache. In this manner the brothers Guzman run through each song with the wild joy of young children amped on Pop Rocks and soda pop. Meanwhile percussionists Richard Panta, Craig Martin and Dante Ruiz counter with a steady, intricate foundation that keeps the music from falling apart. Further amplifying this dynamic is the loud production that pushes the highs and lows to near uncomfortable levels. All of which aren’t bad things: the push-and-pull between chaos and calm is precisely what has grabbed the attention of the group’s varied audiences.
The sole fault of Escape Room is the weakness of some of its songwriting. Some songs revisit past territory almost too closely: “La Gata Perdida” can pass for a minor key version of Ñacas’ “Planeta Rica.” And the album does not have as wide a mix of rhythms and ideas as their past records. That said, the group makes a personal accomplishment by recording an album that closely captures its most appealing quality: the simple reminder that you don’t need to know anything in order to dance.