Williamsburg, Brooklyn has become synonymous with hipster culture, so it’s no surprise that a covers album featuring a lineup of tracks with serious indie cred would originate in the neighborhood. Somewhat more surprising? That those covers would come from an 11-piece salsa band. The self-titled debut album from the Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra adds some Latin flair to tracks from indie staples including Peter Bjorn and John, TV on the Radio, and LCD Soundsystem.
It’s apparent from the get-go that the WSO is a talented group of salsa musicians. Bandleader Gianni Mano leads the ensemble through the album’s ten peppy tracks with precision and energy. However, the combination of salsa and indie is rather hit or miss, with the up-tempo excitement of the orchestra sometimes overshadowing the content of the song being covered. Blaring horns, timbales, and bongos make for a fun cover of an upbeat track like Peter Bjorn and John‘s “Young Folks,” but can feel overwhelming in quieter moments. Similarly, Solange Prat’s vocals have a very polished, almost Broadway quality that meshes well with the salsa backing but lacks the emotional subtlety needed to get the most out of softer tracks or lyrics originally voiced by less traditional singers.
Take, for instance, Arcade Fire’s frequently-covered “Keep the Car Running.” A salsa arrangement is just too cheerful for the Neon Bible standout, and the cacophony of horns becomes claustrophobic, losing the grand scale of the original. Similarly, the WSO’s take on LCD Soundsystem’s “Someone Great” is a little too bouncy and cute for a track with lyrics about profound loss. Prat attacks her vocals with good range and tone, but on these subdued tracks she and the band forget the spirit of the original in their quest to enact a salsa makeover.
Spoon’s “I Turn My Camera On,” lends itself better to a Latin overhaul. Because the song is more lighthearted originally, the jaunty, horn-heavy arrangement of “Camera,” with a chanted chorus from the WSO, brings some extra fun without abandoning the lyrical tone of the material. The Orchestra’s takes on Santigold’s “L.E.S. Artistes,” TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me,” and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ “Cheated Hearts” succeed for similar reasons. Solange Prat’s vocals really shine on tracks that originally featured bolder vocalists like Karen O.
Part of the reason the WSO’s success rate proves so mixed is that they produce a very consistent salsa sound; in fact the album can feel slightly monotonous because the salsa, not the songs, is the centerpiece. If you like salsa music, chances are you’ll enjoy this album. If you enjoy salsa music and covers, even better. But if you give it a listen because you’re a fan of one of the artists being covered, you might only get a kick out of the novelty of the genre-melding. Overall the WSO produces a professionally-played and creative set of covers that succeed when the group remembers to marry style and content, but falter when under too-serious source material.
Williamsburg Salsa Orchestra Tracklist
01. Black Albino Bones (Fucked Up cover)
02. Young Folks (Peter Bjorn and John cover)
03. Keep the Car Running (Arcade Fire cover)
04. I Turn My Camera On (Spoon cover)
05. L.E.S. Artistes (Santigold cover)
06. Ambling Alp (Yeasayer cover)
07. Pleasure Town (Hank & Cupcakes cover)
08. Cheated Hearts (Yeah Yeah Yeahs cover)
09. Wolf Like Me (TV on the Radio cover)
10. Someone Great (LCD Soundsystem cover)