There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Growing up in the ’80s, Julieta Venegas fell in love with the punk scene of her hometown of Tijuana, but her musical interests grew quickly. After starting out in a ska band, Tijuana No!, she moved to Mexico City, where she befriended members of the prog-rock band Café Tacuba, worked on her songwriting, and began experimenting with different sounds. The accordion soon became her instrument of choice, and her first two albums—1998’s Aqui and 2002’s Bueninvento—were sets of gloomy, accordion-laced ballads. Echoing the moody songs, she hit the stage with dark clothes and black lipstick to match. But by 2003’s Sí, both her sound and image underwent an overhaul: she appeared on the cover wearing a white wedding dress, and the music was unrelentingly happy and tender pop. By 2006’s Limón y Sal she was a bona fide Latin pop hitmaker (the disc won the 2007 Grammy for best Latin pop album). That shift has probably alienated as many old fans as made new ones, but her new all-acoustic album, MTV Unplugged, is an successful attempt to bring everybody into the fold: the companion to an MTV Tres special filmed in Mexico City last March, it celebrates some of her newer tunes, reworks some of her older tracks, and adds four new ones. The lead single among that last batch, “El Presente,” is a cheery love song that showcases Venegas’ soulful optimism, as she sings in Spanish, “The present is the only thing that I have/It’s only with you, my love, that I can feel this feeling.” The accordion is still present there and elsewhere, but the songs are bolstered by a host of instruments, among them banjo, tuba, clarinet, and a string quartet. (Venegas plays guitar and piano, too.) The brass instruments are particularly notable, with tuba added to her ballad “Me Voy” and soft trumpet on “Andar Conmigo.” Plenty of guest vocalists step in to help: Marisa Monte lifts “Ilusión,” while Spanish MC Mala Rodríguez flawlessly injects new rhymes into the hit “Eres Para Mi.” Venegas’ first single, 1997’s “De Mis Pasos,” is almost a completely new song. The percussion-heavy original was more in keeping with her punk roots; the new take benefits from a dash of violins and harmony vocals from Juan Son of the Mexican alternative band Porter. “Unplugged” projects have a way of becoming throwaway efforts, but Venegas’ album is more than just the usual stopgap—it not only bridges her two musical personas but opens her up to a whole new audience as well.