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Review: Flor De Toloache, 'Las Caras Lindas'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.

Flor De Toloache, <em>Las Caras Lindas</em>
/ Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Flor De Toloache, Las Caras Lindas

There should be fireworks named after this band, for all the intensity and color and life that bursts forth from Flor de Toloache.

These mariachis have moxie. They don't just sing; they could blast through mountains with their wails and gritos (shouts), and melt glaciers with the warmth of their gorgeous harmonies (figuratively speaking, of course). And they don't just play mariachi. Flor de Toloache also weaves an arsenal of styles into its new release, Las Caras Lindas (The Pretty Faces): jazz, classical, salsa, cumbia, folk, rock, country and hip-hop.

They also mean business. "It's really cool to be an all-female group, and empower and inspire women," says founder Mireya Ramos, "but at the end of the day we want to be known as badass musicians."

Flor de Toloache (pronounced to-lo-AH-cheh) translates to "toloache flower." "It's a moonflower that opens up at night," says Ramos, "that has been used in love potions since ancient Aztec times in Mexico." Aptly named, these mariachis of diverse Latin American heritage are truly bewitching chingonas.

All four women share vocal duties, with Mireya Ramos and Shae Fiol up front. Ramos, a Mexican/Dominican who was raised in Puerto Rico, also plays violin, while Fiol, a Cuban American from Portland, Ore., plays vihuela and guitar. Eunice Aparicio, a native of Mexico who lives in San Diego, and Julie Acosta, a Dominican from Miami, harmonize and play guitarrón and trumpet, respectively.

Despite initial criticism by some traditionalists for 'not being Mexican enough,' or 'mariachi enough,' the band's first, self-titled album earned them a 2015 Grammy nomination for Best Ranchera Album (ranchera is a style of mariachi). Then came more international touring, collaborations with No Te Va Gustar, Chicano Batman and Luba Mason, three Fania Records music videos, and even performing in a New York subway train for a Kate Spade commercial.

The new album, Las Caras Lindas, follows suit and aims to stretch your mind with more elaborate arrangements, striking interpretations of mariachi covers, a Juan Gabriel tribute medley, and six originals influenced by the collaborations that arose while touring. Fresh off of travel dates, they recorded the album in one marathon week – a feat nobody thought they could pull off. "Everybody told us we couldn't do it" says Ramos. "Our producer Felipe Fournier was amazing and our label (Chulo Records) was really pleased with the results."

For all their spunk and ingenuity, it's the sublime vocal match between lead singers Fiol and Ramos that sets the band (and its audiences) on fire. Whether belting out a drama or whispering sweet love, their stunning harmonies intertwine like an intimate tango dance, and in some cases they alternate between lead melodies. Both are able to scale three to four octaves; the sultry Fiol can dip the lowest while the more operatic Ramos can reach the highest notes.

Without the luxury of punching in unlimited retakes at leisure, the recording session for Las Caras Lindas was "challenging, but a dream come true," says Fiol, who learned to let go of vocal perfection to allow for emotion on songs like "Huapango Medley (Malageña Salerosa-El Pastor-La Cigarra)," "Puro Teatro" and "Regresa Yá." She explains that "the vibe has to be consistent and grow; to be one continuous feeling and emotional story that's told by the way your voice changes from beginning to end."

"'Puro Teatro' is so emotional that we kept the places that aren't perfect for my standards of tone and pitch," said Fiol. "What felt like sacrificing actually was allowing myself to be very exposed; more vulnerable. You tell a way more honest story that way, without that polished pop sound that gives a feeling that it's not as human. And that's what's missing in the music world."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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