The Phantom Tollbooth

If I Was a Latin King
Artist: John Austin
Label: WeatherVane Music
Time: 42:59 minutes/ 13 tracks

After three albums in the "earnest, mostly acoustic singer/songwriter" vein, John Austin decided it was time for a change. Okay, it was probably a lot less calculated than that, but this album will definitely keep him from being pigeon-holed. This time out the songs form a colorful collage of Latin styles, and the result is a thoroughly convincing transformation.

From the opening lines of the title track, a listener unfamiliar with Austin's previous work might well wonder, "What do you mean, if he was a Latin king?" as he croons over a foundation of Spanish guitar, strings, and waves of cymbal crashes. Similar musical themes appear throughout the album as he pays a musical tribute to the Hispanic community of his native Chicago. With production help from Bill Campbell of Poole, these styles are given a wide range of treatments. "Gypsy Moth" is built around a catchy, straightforward flamenco guitar lick, while the instrumental "(In the Doghouse)" sounds like Beck's mariachi band. "In Your Mama's Dreamz" brings it all together: propelled by programmed beats and accented with lush keyboard tones and vocals from Austin's wife, Erin Echo, all without losing sight of his expressive guitar playing.

The subject matter of the songs doesn't stray far from the music. Austin has painted a picture of these neighborhoods that celebrates the good but doesn't shy away from reality. There is innocence in the children who just want to "Shatta Dat Pinata" (a Latin "The Kids are All Right"?). But in "Be True to Your School," a menacing variation on the Beach Boys's classic, they're warned, "Everybody come to the stadium/It's safer than a classroom after school." Knowing that the Latin Kings are one of the largest gangs in Chicago puts the romantic mood of the title track in a whole new light, as Austin sings of love cut short in a world where "the violent and beautiful go running hand in hand" ("On down below the transit tracks/I lost you there in a wicked flash"). But it's the teenage mother of "In Your Mama's Dreamz" who brings us closest to the struggle to love while surrounded by brutality:

Austin knows firsthand about the darkness in these songs, having been brutally assaulted by members of the Latin Kings several years ago. The songs are directly related to that event, and are, in his words, "about violence and the other side of violence, forgiveness." It's no surprise, then, that these stories have an edge of authenticity reminiscent of the cast of misfits in Michael Knott's Hollywood apartment building on Rocket and a Bomb. There are no "Stay in school" or "Gangs are bad" sermons here. Just unflinching, candid lyrical photographs set against a rich musical tapestry that is not just the backdrop, but an equal partner in setting the scene and drawing in the listener.

By Brett MacAlpine (2/3/99)