The seven musicians in L.A.‘s veteran funk outfit Ozomatli have always worked best at faster tempos, and their latest, Fire Away, wastes no time locking in to an upbeat groove that’s undeniably danceable—so long as you don’t mind breaking a sweat. “Are You Ready?” opens the set with energy to spare, but even better is “Malagasy Shock,” which serves up riotous ska-punk with an undeniable call-to-arms chorus, as singer-guitarist Raul Pachecho raps: “Don’t ever let ‘em fuck you over/Grab a mic and we’ll show you/Feel the spark light your eye/Move your feet or you will die.” It’s such an explosively giddy tune that you’d never guess that it was inspired by Pachecho’s almost fatal electrocution at a live show in Madagascar.
There are a couple of breathers thrown in during the album’s second half, and they’re both skippable, but by and large, Fire Away is an album in motion, fast-moving and unpredictable in terms of pace and style. Excepting the one-note ballad “It’s Only Time,” each of Fire Away‘s 11 songs showcases Ozomatli’s singular gift for fusing salsa, funk, hip-hop, soul, and punk into joyous three-minute bursts of sociopolitical swing. That freeform culture mashing gives the band much of its identity—these are very talented musicians, and few acts could match their level of versatility—but also compromises it.
In their mid-career incarnation (see 2001’s Embrace the Chaos and especially 2004’s excellent Street Signs), Ozomatli worked hard at perfecting their own brand of Latin funk, but Fire Away‘s casually multicultural, try-everything-twice ethos is both less focused and less distinctive. When they stray too far from their core sound, Ozomatli comes off as generically West Coast: “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” and “Cabalito” sound like jazzed-up versions of, respectively, No Doubt and Los Lobos.
Eclecticism aside, Ozomatli has always distinguished themselves from their peers by working a hefty dose of politics into their party mix, without resorting to Rage Against the Machine’s cartoonish fury or U2’s self-righteousness. Rather, their sloganeering is shot through with the same all-embracing pluralist spirit as their music. If anything, they could stand to take themselves a bit more seriously: Aside from a clever nod to Morrissey in the first verse, “Gay Vatos in Love” plays more like a one-note gag than the controversial statement trumpeted in the album’s press release, and Jack Johnson’s guest spot on the anti-materialist “Only Paper” is yet another sermon on the irrelevance of money from a guy who makes loads of it.
While their verses might be disappointingly lightweight this time out, Ozomatli provides more than enough substance where it counts: Even the least interesting tracks on the album are structured around a killer bassline, horn riff, or vocal performance. The sappy “Only Paper” will be blasted out of your memory as soon as the band launches into “Elyisian Persuasion,” with Pachecho’s hard-edged funk riffs playing expertly off of Mario Carlile’s dexterous drumming. The truth is, Ozomatli has always been better suited to partying than protesting, and on Fire Away that suits them just fine.